Let me rewind everything a bit before I begin an launch into an somewhat adulatory blog post about Kim Cofino and her workshopping skills. My own perspective on the whole technology and learning business is particular. I have only been around a short short while in the ‘first world’ of technology in schools, as it were. My wife and I worked in Tanzania for four years, four very beautiful years that we talk about often and still miss in a good way. But it was, as a friend put it, a deep, deep dark hole, technologically speaking. You can probably appreciate how that experience was positive as well as challenging. Last year, my wife Samantha and I (and the kids) moved to Muscat, another place that we love (for different reasons, which is great). As I settled in to my new teaching job, and my world started to slow down as the newness of everything wore off a bit, I noticed opportunities around me at had never existed before. People around us were talking about the learning opportunities that technology can offer, there was hardware around that worked well, and, dulcis in fundo, there was bandwidth to support it all. I realized that I was emerging from the deep hole. (We’re getting close to where Kim comes into all of this.) The rest of the world seemed closer than it had been before. And the rest of the world is packed full of learners, young and old, teachers and students (not that teachers are necessarily old and students are necessarily young, not at all that way). I began to get excited about it all, and I wanted to know more.
In this last year I have started to read and dialogue (some) with people all over the world, and I have been learning from all of them. I have built and dismantled and rebuilt a network of learners and teachers that have inspired me along the way. Kim’s “Always Learning” was the first blog I kept once I began thinning out my RSS list. This last week end I went to Abu Dhabi for the NESA Fall Training Institute, and Kim Cofino was leading our two day workshop. Making the Shift Happen, it was titled. Most of the participants in the workshop either knew Kim or knew of Kim, and she was received rapturously. After the two days were over (Kim was sent off rapturously as well), I sat in the hotel and waited for my late plane. There were a few fellow work-shoppers dotted around the hotel reception area, all waiting for their own poorly planned return flights. I reflected on what I had learned, and thought about how I was going to report back to the Technology Committee that was meeting the next day at school. I began making a list of what I had enjoyed about Kim’s workshop. Kim herself had been very knowledgeable, she had been gracious with everyone (that’s a tough one, kudos Kim), she had been flexible and always checked in with our needs, and she was a great listener. I came out of the workshop with many ideas, several tools that I know that I’ll use, and armed with some pretty powerful knowledge to use when I’m my tech agenda at school. But this list alone could not account for the sense of inspiration that I felt growing in my mind. So I began to try to understand where that little bolt of excitement might have come from. I’m still not sure exactly where it came from, but it was evident to me that Kim is a very passionate torch bearer for the Shift that she talks about, and she is able to communicate that passion clearly and in a concrete way. But beyond Kim’s ability to communicate her ideas well, I think that her passion is derived from her message. My interpretation of her message is that today’s students deal with more information more frequently and more skillfully than possibly any previous generation of students. And that today’s students learn and communicate in ways outside school that we cannot ignore inside school. And finally, that today students have a whole world of collaborators at their fingertips, literally. A whole world of other learners with whom they can collide their ideas and generate new whole new ways of thinking with (see Steven Johnson’s video for a beautifully articulated and illustrated version of the above sentence). Kim presents us with is an inspiring shift to be making.
This year my wife and I moved from Tanzania to Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman. We loved Tanzania, our kids were born there, but it was time to move. So this year has been one of challenges aplenty: helping a 3 year old say goodbye to her whole world, dragging her one year old brother along as we said goodbye as well. We started setting up a new home in a new country, finding new friends, and learning about a new job in a new school. We learned a lot, and it has been tiring (in a good way).
Here are my professional “done betters”, some of which I had never done before, so doing them better turned out to be quite easy. Technology in Tanzania was very 1.0 for a few reasons, whereas here in Muscat we are pretty well equipped to engage in all of the very exciting and redifining stuff that we (you, me, my PLN) all talk to each other about.
1) Develop my PLN – Learning about PLNs was like a grand piano falling out of the sky and landing on me. I had no idea such a thing existed one year ago. Now I am swimming in new ideas, I have tens, yes tens of followers to bounce my ideas off of, and I find that the very existence of my PLN gives me a peace of mind that things are possible. Why wouldn’t they be when there are all those people out there who can help me brainstorm through things?
2) Organize my mind and space – always a challenge for me. I am Italian, and not to reinforce stereotypes, but my nature is to talk with the children and put a pile of paper down as we laugh about something, and then spend my entire prep looking for that pile of papers. This year my wife came into my classroom kind of like one of those make over shows, and helped me put in place some systems that have worked.
3) Slow down – This one is very concrete. Someone (sorry that I have forgotten who you were!) advised that you shouldn’t use a tech tool for less than a month if you want a lower elementary class to really know it. This was solid gold for me. Voicethread lasted more than 2 months, first exploring our Wants and Needs, then looking at Food Chains, and now reading poetry.
4) Let the questions run the show – I am cheating on this one. Really, what I did this year was realize something important, which has started to transform my practice. I remembered that the questions have to be in charge of all of the learning. Some people call it getting out of the way of learning. I think that I was asking good questions, and the children certainly were. But what hijacked things was my fear of losing sight of the Standards and Benchmarks if I let the questions really take control of the learning. Then I read Jeff Utecht’s post on the S and B’s (the one that calls them crap), and the chains came off. Letting the questions really live is essential.
5) Assessment – Well, I’m more organized (see #2) and it is easier to use my assessments when I know where they are. But beyond that, I have been more able than in the past to see how a student learns, and use that information to plan for them. This process, in my opinion, is easier if the S and B’s are put aside a little (not out of sight, just aside). That way you can really look at the learner, and not on what he or she has or hasn’t learned.
Thanks to @mbteach for suggesting a reflection like this.
Photo: naturalturn (Flickr)
Three times a year (more reasonably twice per year) teachers in schools all over the place meditate about their students. They might shuffle through notes, re-read prior assessments, reflect on anecdotes, but ultimately they sit down and bang out narrative reports about each student. These narratives depict some or all aspects of each student’s school life: Social Emotional Development, Literacy, Math, Units of Inquiry, etc. What I think about sometimes when I go through this process is this: who am I writing all of this for? Am I painting a picture for the students’ parents? Are these reports designed to inform the students’ future teachers? Are they official documents that are supposed to accurately and professionally depict the children as learners, in the event that they need to used as entrance assessments by schools somewhere in those students’ futures? In my New York City teaching career we were often reminded that the reports that we wrote could be used to challenge a child’s being held back a year due to a poor test result. Sort of a “this is a legal document ” warning.
Ultimately, we are writing for all of these audiences. Depending on your school and its philosophy, more for one than another. It bears thinking about and discussing. We put lots of hours into these narratives, work that when coupled with a thoughtful portfolio and with a student’s own voice, can really tell a story. Who are we telling the story to?