Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow


Recent online conversations about rules and pencils have me thinking about my own teaching career.

My assigned summer reading before college was Ivan Illich’s book, Deschooling Society. That was 1970.

Before I graduated, I had read John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, and Herbert Kohl. As I moved into the classroom, these people shaped me as a teacher. At least in my head.

Yet, the system often wore me down.

That’s not an excuse, though I know it sounds like one. Fitting a square peg in a round hole isn’t easy. So I struggled to find ways to move around the structure and give choice to my curriculum and flexibility to my teaching style.

But now as I look back, I see that I was afraid. I was fearful of breaking rules, coloring outside the lines, of teaching in ways I knew would most benefit my kids.

Mostly, I felt alone. That was before the internet. Before learning communities. Before transparency. It was difficult to find like-minded people who shared my philosophy or desire to practice differently.

And then my world changed.

In 1986 I bought my first computer. A few years later, I began to use computers with students. A Mac to layout our school newspaper, a PC with PowerPoint to enable kids to create presentations, the text-based world wide web that allowed me to chat with someone in Switzerland one day. My teaching didn’t change overnight, and moving to an independent school did give me more flexibility. But having access to technology and the internet is what truly affected my teaching practice.

Jump forward to 2004, and suddenly I was blogging. And finding community. And support.

You know the rest of the story…because it is also your story. The connections have allowed us to find each other. Networking has enabled us to garner support for our “radical” ideas (tell that to Ivan).

My last year in the classroom helped me change even more.

A conversation with my cousin this summer validated my feelings. Her children attended a high school that requires no set curriculum and no grades. This is my niece’s second year in college. And although she struggled somewhat to convince colleges of her merit (she had no traditional AP courses or typical transcript from a standard school), her personal interview and portfolio sold her colleges and gained her acceptance into her school of choice. Her recent Facebook status read: I LOVE my college.

Freedom to learn works. Illich said this in 1971:

educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring

Pretty amazing, huh?

We are better together. That’s the mission statement for Powerful Learning Practice, the folks I’m working with now. It’s like I’ve come full circle.

On Their Own

I have to admit to feeling somewhat disconnected this fall. After all, I’ve taught for most of the past 30 years, recently at Fredericksburg Academy as the instructional tech coordinator and an English teacher. Fall can be difficult for ex-teachers who love being in the classroom.

Today, a colleague shared with me an email and screenshot of work her kids were doing. She had sent it out to the entire faculty and then realized I might enjoy seeing what the students were up to. She was right. So cool.

Here’s her email:

Here is a little story about young, independent, tech savvy students overcoming their obstacles and taking responsibility. Blair is absent today, but she emailed me this morning to tell me that she had made arrangements with her partner about the paper that they were supposed to write together in class. Now, during class both students are typing on the same Google doc at the same time and chatting with each other in the Google chat feature. I thought that it was cool that I could check in on and literally watch students as they worked in my classroom, but this is even better. The best part: they set this up on their own.

Thanks, @jclarkevans for keeping me in the loop. I especially enjoy this coming from Blair, a student who claimed she just “didn’t love” using the laptops two years ago when I taught her ninth grade! (However, she was the one most intrigued by my talk about digital identity.) We never know where our students will go when we allow them to figure things out on their own. And teachers like Jennifer allow this to happen.

Tool Geek? No, Learning Geek….

A recent chat with @snbeach, @baldy7, @datruss and Rob from NH on a PLP info session has me thinking. I mentioned that I got “into all this” (never sure how to categorize these huge shifts in thinking and learning anymore) because I loved playing with “tools.”

Tony said that wasn’t the case for him. But I wonder how many are more like me?

I remember the first time I put my hands on a computer. I was taking a re-certification in 1985 to teach high school again after taking off a few years with my children. A local college offered a class in Basic programming, so I signed up without fully understanding what I was getting into.

Actually, I had never touched a computer, and I was an English major (fully avoiding math and science whenever possible).

Three weeks later, I remember the frustration, the uncertainty, and the exhaustion I felt, trying to use the left side of by brain to logically determine what a loop was and how to write a simple piece of code. On my own for the most part, there was no hand-holding in this course.

Uploaded on May 21, 2009 by Temari 09

By the time I finished,  though, I had learned to write a short grading program that worked.

And I felt a sense of accomplishment.

That one step took me to the next: buying my own computer, figuring out how to manage DOS and Windows apps, and  installing peripherals. I was having so much fun figuring it all out and learning something new, totally in the flow.

And then something amazing happened. I was given a Mac to use in my journalism class, the first computer to be used in the county for any instruction. I began to see the power of turning kids loose and taking control of their own learning. One boy learned Illustrator and shared it with the class; another became a graphics design expert and landed an after-school job. Many began finding other strengths in writing, publishing, and advertising.

In a few short years, I was online in a text-based web, texting with someone from Europe, who jumped onto my screen. The possibilities for my classroom were rumbling around in my head. By 2000, I was back in school in a M.Ed program in Instructional Tech. In 2004, I started blogging (first trying to install Manilla on our school server); then I discovered Twitter in 2007, and my world shifted.

Isn’t this what we want for our students today? To want to work through problems, concepts, or issues? To be curious enough to see how things work? To create?

My circuitous path led me to new ways of thinking about how my students learn and what I want schools to “look like” (if, indeed, we need to have schools at all). It all started with an interest in figuring out a tool, but it’s moved to how these tools–or now these online social technologies–change the way we live in this networked world.

What has changed your thinking? How can our interactions with each other and the tools make meaningful change in the life of our students?

Uploaded on January 16, 2008
by seeks2dream

Curiosity killed the …..

What makes a person curious?

I wonder about this constantly. I especially think about this when I’m teaching as it seems curious children are more successful. And if that’s true, what does that mean in the classroom?

This article and the research it pulls from have challenged my thinking (or at least given me pause). From Professor Steven Dutch’s research:

Curiosity and creativity in the fully adult sense are hard work and are acquired tastes, just like running is an acquired taste….

Even the most creative people spend most of their time tinkering. That’s probably a hallmark of real creativity – a restless curiosity. Noncurious people tinker only occasionally and with only short-range goals in mind. (They pay for it. I once visited a man who spent the entire time lamenting how miserable his life had been and how lonely he was. I looked around the house and saw not a single book or any sign of a hobby. No wonder he was miserable, and lonely too. Who would want to spend time with such a person?) The creative person’s constant tinkering first of all yields lots of unexpected insights, and second sharpens the ability to recognize potentially significant new results.

Since I haven’t come up with the definitive answer (and when I do, I’ll bottle and sell it), I’ll share an opposing view from this blog I found recently called Creating Brains. The author writes about creativity and curiosity, often quoting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of my favorite researchers.

Good stuff.

Original image: ‘curious roy’
by: Stefano Mortellaro

Working Through the Kinks

Our study of the Holocaust is nearly complete. Students read Night by Elie Wiesel, heard a survivor's story during a personal visit, and researched topics of choice on wikispaces. The study is part of a larger unit on Battling Indifference, in which students must try to define, discuss the effects of, and stake a stand on some form of indifference.
Overall, I was pleased as we were able to use Diigo to collect bookmarks, Google Docs to collaborate on research, and Yammer to provide prompts for class discussions. The kids aren't getting Diigo yet, but it's still early in the year. I don't think I've spent enough time showing them how I use diigo and delicious with my network, which is half the benefit. And Yammer will only  effective if they use it–so far it works well when we are in class together, but I don't see much use happening outside class.
We had some interesting discussions about what videos and images would be appropriate for their sites, as the reality of the Holocaust is almost unbearable for most of us to fathom. They also realized giving appropriate credit for research is something they struggle with, and we definitely need to spend more time on this. They seemed to enjoy working collaboratively, and I could see the work as it progressed. Truthfully, we had to spend more time getting the technology mastered than I wanted, and I ended up not spending the time reviewing and editing the actual writing with them. Plus the process of researching took a back seat while I helped them figure out how to embed videos and link to other sources. I am hopeful that now that we've introduced and used these tools, the research/reading/writing component of future work will take center stage and the creating/publishing aspect will work seamlessly.
Unfortunately, because I had them all create their own wikis, they will need to invite all their classmates to join in order to be able to leave comments on the discussion tab, something that has worked so well on my colleague's site.
Sigh, it's a process for me, too.