Sunday, October 25, 2009

A day with Steve Hargadon

Wow! I've just spent a day with over 25 talented and deeply thoughtful BC educators in a Classroom 2.0 Live unconference led by Steve Hargadon. We started with introductions that took almost an hour but the themes and topics that people wanted to talk about emerged as people talked about where they live, what they teach, the challenges they face, and their level of expertise with what many of those of us have come to think of as common tools and resources.

As we each spoke, Steve sat at the front jotting ideas and themes down of a scrap of paper. He has a general shape of the day he builds in his CR2.0 wiki with the collaboration of the local contacts for each of these events. Before we took our first break he/we ammended that and then we plunged into a series of how to's and deeper discussions about teaching and learning in the 21st century. What emerged for me as the discussion progressed is the role that many in the room believe we has as a connective generation of teachers. We seem to feel we're the group that stands between the treasured values of the past ...

... and the exciting possibilities of the future.

Steve's overall goal for the day was to mirror the Classroom 2.0 experience for the people in the room. I think our was to find a collection of like-minded educators here in BC and begin to share what we've learned and developed with people who are close by instead of far off in the US or other parts of the world.

I have to say I was amazed at the imaginative initiatives being undertaken in schools less than an hour or two from where I live:
  • Brian whose Coquitlam school has decided to adopt an "open school" policy regarding students' use of personal devices for learning
  • Jan whose classroom blog is like a hub for all her students' individual blogs and whose class blogroll is a collection of the blogs of other classes in Canada and the world to which her students respond
  • Blair who has begun a Moodle to provide his grade 8 math students with access to resources 24/7
  • Bryan who has started a master Delicious list (organised by subject) for his entire district (all teachers can forward their bookmarks to him and contribute to a district tag cloud that is available to them vie the district website)
  • the district principle from outside the Lower Mainland who'd wanted to take back ideas to the teachers in his area and help them launch new projects.
  • several experienced teachers old enough to be thinking about retirement, but who had postponed it because they are so excited by all the new things they were trying and they can't leave just yet!
Steve did achieve his goal -- we were indeed a microcosm of the 25,000 strong Classroom 2.0, and we are looking forward to continuing our dialogue online and in person. But we also found that even in this world of wide reaching and nearly instant communication, there is something special achieved by being together in the same room where we can overhear each others' conversations, fluidly move from group to group, bounce ideas around the group as a whole, and catch the infectious energy that is often hard to sustain when it's just you and your computer alone in a room reaching out and wondering if anyone out there's listening. Steve may feel that all of this can be accomplished just as well from a distance, but I'm still not sure.

I do know that it was a wonderful day. By the end of the day we had reaffirmed for ourselves that as a profession educators are moving away from being conveyors of information towards becoming community organisers and that we have tremendous power as leaders and role models to influence the deeper uses to which our students will put the tools they take to so naturally and information they can find so quickly. Web 2.0 is giving us a chance to claim a wonderful vocation for ourselves as teachers -- that of leaders, creators of educational experiences the students will remember even as adults, and the enlargers of minds.

As Jan said -- the power is in the connection, and it certainly was on Saturday in Room 3300.

Friday, October 16, 2009


This week I've been reading Will Richardson, watching Larry Lessig (video below), and thinking about the events a couple of weeks back in Honduras. This has lead to a brain mash-up that is finally expressing itself as a question: what are fences for -- to keep trespassers out or to keep the occupants in?

Physical fences make us feel secure. By delineating mine from yours, safe from unsafe, and friendly from unfriendly they help us know who we are, where we belong, and what we own. When I lived in the Yukon, for example, the territory north of the 60th parallel was referred to as 'inside'. The unfortunates who did not live north of 60 were 'from outside'. The line was invisible, but to those of us who lived Inside and knew the fence was there, the divide was great. We insiders shared a way of life and a fellowship that made us a tribe. That fence gave us a way of defining ourselves by proclaiming our isolation from everyone else.

Intellectual fences on the other hand are less trusted. Who does not recoil at the thought of the Honduran military shutting down broadcasters with accusations of spreading dissent? The curtailing of people's basic freedoms of speech, thought, and choice is an affront to those of us who enjoy a free society. Yet the new government feels justified in shutting down activities and voices that "attack peace and public order."

So then how are we to react to the growing prohibitions on internet use and access in public schools? Are they protective or coercive?

In his article Don't, Don't, Don't vs. Do, Do, Do (2009) in Weblogg-ed, Will Richardson reflects about the ways in which many school districts are trying to protect their students and presumably themselves by compiling extensive "Acceptable Use" technology policy manuals that enumerate for staff, students, and parents "the many transgressions" that will not be tolerated and handing them out on Day One.

There are three problematic implications associated with this kind of intellectual prohibition that come to mind. First it gives parents a false sense of security by suggesting that it's possible to build a fence that is big enough and so impenetrable as to keep their children safe. As well, it starts from the premise that cutting off all access (to social networks for example) by all people to prevent a few from going to the 'wrong parts of town' is justified.

[Image Source: No Chaser, 07/26/2009]

Finally, these manuals seem to alleviate school leaders from having to take responsibility for keeping children safe and also make it easy to blame the kids if they get into trouble.

Lessig's take on these kinds of prohibitions is even more sinister. In his view, the use of laws and regulations to erect a fence between young people and what they consider to be full and natural participation in the democratized read/write web is to rob them of their freedom to collaborate, to speak, and even to be. Extreme protectionism on one side of the fence engenders extreme 'law breaking' by young people. "You can't kill the instinct that technology produces, says Lessig,"you can only criminalize it. You can't make our kids passive again; you can only make them pirates ... who live life against the law."

Richardson muses that it would be much more enticing to students to receive a list of "Admirable Uses" instead of the standard 'Don'ts'. This approach would engage their sense of wonder and get them considering 'the possible' from their first moment back in school. I'd also say that if we don't want schools to become places that put the lie to the value of education, we have to stop extending the promise of openness and inquiry to students with one hand and taking it away with the other.

[Image Source: s.l.o.w.p.o.k.e in Flickr. 05/03/2008]
So how do we make a start? We take a realistic look at what is possible under the current conditions and start "Do use the network to" lists of our own. To the items on Will Richardson's list, I'd add for students:
  • Do use the network to find what you have in common with people who at first do not seem like you.
  • Do use the network in a way that is respectful of other people, their ideas, and their work.
  • Do use the network to get meaningful feedback that can help you to do better.
  • Do use the network to engage in conversations with people who will challenge your ideas.

  • Do use the network to share your reflections about your learning.
and for teachers:

    Young people's way of making sense of the world and expressing themselves may be changing with new technology, but they experience the same emotions and have the same dreams that we do. They are not as far from our reach as some 'new education' thinkers would have us believe.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Math Teachers

Why are secondary math teachers so reluctant to try Web 2.0 tools?

First I think this results from the perception that Math is qualitatively different from other subjects. In some ways learning math has more in common with the skills development aspects of PE or some of the practical arts and trades-based classes than with other content area courses. Web 2.0 tools which enhance learning through creative self-expression, presenting to a real audience, or sharing ideas may seem to have no place in math class. To the skeptical teacher these can seem like add-ons that take valuable time away from instruction and guided practice rather than having the power to enhance math learning in a completely new way.

Also, good website can be hard to find (to paraphrase an old song). Online games that reinforce skills or websites that provide instruction often don't match the content a teacher wants students to practise or the steps by which a skill has been taught in class. The questions may not be sufficiently varied or at the right level. Finally, because math teachers have not traditionally made a lot of use of computers with students in their classrooms, they may have limited access which is not particularly conducive to trying new initiatives.

Finding a starting Web 2.0 tool for secondary math teachers involves leading them to a comfortable starting point.

(To scroll down again, click anywhere on the right.)


Start too far along the continuum of tool or use or comfort level, and math teachers (or beginners from other departments) feel overwhelmed. It all seems just a little too "wild and wooly." It's important to remember that no tool feels intuitive or user-friendly to the person who feels out of his/her depth. The potential for increasing student achievement or engaging in interesting professional growth must far exceed the barriers. There can seem to be just too many alligators lurking beneath the surface of the swamp to justify jumping in.

[Image adapted from: I.H.S. Consulting Group @]

I'm beginning a new collaboration with a young woman tackling the new Math 8 curriculum here in BC. She is conscientiously trying to incorporate new constructivist approaches as directed by the district helping teacher, to meet her school's goal of increasing literacy, and to collaborate with her department by organising in school-wide math events. We had talked about the new program and some possible starting points, but when I appeared at her door and starting throwing ideas around, I could see her wilt under the weight of what seemed yet another add-on that was going to compound her needs rather than help her meet the ones she already had.

We started looking at what she felt to be a set of unique problems associated with math teaching, but it turned out that she didn't need better 'math tools' as such. After about an hour of chatting back and forth we settled on three that are by now pretty familiar to people in this course: PowerPoint, ToonDoo, and Voicethread. She'll be able to use them to deliver instruction as well as give them to students to use. These tools will also help her address the problem-solving and literacy building initiatives by involving students in using words to processes, giving each other feedback about solutions, incorporating some creative reinforcement of learning, and publishing their work for others to see. Students who learn these in math will also be able to use them in other courses and may for once be able to say that they learned something in math that helped them in their real lives.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Math by the Numbers

[Image Source: popeye the sailorman cartoon @]

Mp3 Free

Popeye was “strong to the finich” because he ate his spinach. Math is kind of like the spinach of school subjects -- most students do it because it’s good for them, not because it’s inherently enjoyable or meaningful. Out of school long enough to understand the challenges that lie ahead, parents know how many doors close when students are not successful in academic math classes. They want their kids to tough it out. However, teens are often more familiar with -- the frustration that results from poor understanding, disconnection from the content, and lack of skills mastery. Many just want to get out’.

Given many students' difficulty learning math and its importance in securing their futures, math class should be a natural place for trying new strategies, tools, and ideas to enhance learning. But math teachers are often the last in schools to try 21st century tools and strategies. Although math should be about problem-solving and communication, it can devolve into repetition and memorization of skills or solving of story problems that seem to students to have little to do with the real world. For them, what's learned in math class, stays in math class.

Math teachers all agree that more we get students doing math, the more math they'll learn. However, what secondary math teachers often don't realize is that many of these new technologies will give them ways to actually accomplish that -- by getting students talking about and doing more math. The value of Web 2.0 tools lies in their ability to help math teachers:

• ensure old skills gaps are filled and new skills are well understood and well learned,
• build math reading comprehension skills so that students are not baffled by the way language is used in math questions,
• engage students in communication and collaborative problem-solving so they have to ‘speak’ math,
• encourage higher order thinking skills by making intriguing connections between math and the world outside the math classroom,
• provide students practice using tools they will need for study and work after high school, and
• connect with other math teachers who are also trying these new approaches.

If we secondary math teachers can turn the part of the day students spend in our classes into a part of the day students look forward to, the time, effort, and deep thought that will be required of us to find, learn, and create compelling uses of Web 2.0 tools and resources will reward us with gold.

Math Candy: I thought this was very cool!

Why do math teachers prefer to 'paint by the numbers'? Any thoughts?


Next Post? Math 2.0 tools and strategies.

Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot + Back to the Future = New Sue

In my early years of teaching, about every three or four years, I would engage in a summer of renewal of myself as a teacher. After a year during which my shortcomings seemed more often to be leading my interactions with students, I would feel I'd lost perspective and that I wasn't satisfied I was giving the kids my best so I would buy books and read for answers.

During one of those summers about ten years ago, two of the books I read were by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot: The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Courage (1983) and Beyond Bias: Perspective in Classrooms (1978). Before there were mashups or digital story telling, Lightfoot melded old-fashioned story telling with a sociologist's curiosity to find out what makes people and their relationships and the institutions they inhabit tick. She came up with a process sometimes referred to as "human archeology." Start with questions that she was wondering about, she'd find people who were interested in engaging in conversations and then spend a lot of time listening and helping them reveal their stories.

To write her "Portraits," Lightfoot immersed herself deeply in the lives of the people in six different US secondary schools. Before edublogs, Classroom 2.0, and threaded discussions, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot gave a voice to school people and students, to parents and community members in a way that opened the heart of each school to her readers. By becoming part of each school's landscape, she was able to "bust through" the bricks and mortar and the widely held stereotypes of the time and told stories of people struggling to do their best -- some succeeding and others not so much -- but all caring about education and trying to do better.

My copies of Lightfoot's books are in now a box somewhere downstairs, but there is one message that I very clearly recall. Whether it was spoken by a teacher who was interviewed or part of a conclusion drawn by Lightfoot herself, I'm no longer sure -- but it had to do with not taking the stuff that kids do and say personally. Whenever I have lost my way with students, it's almost always because I have forgotten that important bit of guidance.

By the time they arrive at my school, my students have become masterful at finding and pressing all the hot buttons the adults in their lives carry. When I forget that this testing behaviour is their way of trying to assert a little control in a world that threatens to ignore or even drown them -- when I lose the ability to think inside the moment and just react -- that's when I get lost.

At my most vulnerable moments during challenging encounters it's terribly important to maintain enough perspective see that, when acting out, students are actually letting their guard down. They are making themselves themselves vulnerable by inadvertently giving me a glimpse of their deeper selves. When I simply react from a place of feeling misunderstood, overtaxed, unappreciated, or unacceptably challenged, I blow an opportunity to reach out and create a meeting of minds that will lead to greater mutual understanding. I miss a true teachable moment (for them) and a 'learnable' moment (for me).

This transitional year (as I wrote last week) is for me about reflection and regaining a sense of grace. It's about reconnecting with my students, but it's also about taking risks in this old/new role as a student to be a little like my students and ask challenging questions. It's about pushing my personal and professional learning to the limits. It's also about using the feelings I experience from being back in the student role after twenty0 years to better understand my students.

Lightfoot's newest book is entitled The Third Chapter: the Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50. Once again she's apparently telling my story. I can't wait to read the book and find out how I'm doing! Ironically my own "new adventure" is taking me back to earlier roles. (Image is linked.)

My own new risks involve actually trying on behaviours and attitudes I didn't have the confidence to express when I was younger. For the "burn out" Lightfoot speaks of in the video interview below came from an exhaustion of spirit brought on by a life of speaking old scripts that had never really worked for me because they were constructed out of my guesses about the way others wanted me to be. For my whole life I've been trying out behaviours on others and constructing myself out of their reactions. If at fifty-seven, I can't finally just put what I think and feel and believe and want and wonder out there and leave the reacting to others, I never will. Time could be getting short.

Some people after fifty yearn to live out their childhood dreams by buying expensive motorcycles or jumping out of airplanes. They feel "the thrill is gone," and they want it back. Others after a lifetime of meeting other people's needs express a deep need to find out who they really are and may even leave their homes and families to do that. I know that in my case, this finding of my new self can only be accomplished if I redefine myself as a teacher and as a student first. Once that is done, I will be able to close that door knowing that I've given it all I had and taken from it all that I need in order to finally not have to relive the old cycles and relearn the old lessons.

P.S. 2 wishes -- First, I wish I could find the earlier interview that Bill Moyers speaks of in the clip so that we could hear what Lightfoot had to say about schools back in 1983, and second, I wish she had the time to go back to those 6 schools and update her portraits in light of the changes in American education since then. Here's the clip of Bill Moyers interviewing Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. If you want more there is a video of her speaking to a group of colleagues at:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Thoughts from Differentiating Instruction (503)

I am currently on a half time leave from my job. Over the past 2 years my life's work has become very hard to do well, so I've decided to make time to hit my personal and professional reset button and figure out how to go forward.

In the book Success is the Quality of Your Journey, Alene Morris is quoted as saying that "self-knowledge is for the purpose of contributing," However, I'm beginning to believe that, at least when it comes to teaching, it is contributing that is for the purpose of self-knowledge. I have always felt that teaching is the most self-reflective profession there is. The best and worst of you is reflected back in your students' eyes immediately, but lately I have not been happy with what I've been seeing there.

As usual, my challenges in the current Wilkes course have led to a realization that I think is an important part of this redefinition of myself as an educator. I thought when I began this degree program that I wanted was make what I was already doing better. I thought when I started my leave, that what I wanted was to find my way back to the teacher I was. What I am learning from both is that what I really want is to move forward to the teacher I can become -- whoever she turns out to be. So this week I've been thinking deeply about differentiation and the need to listen to my students.

The video clip that follows shows a former student of mine named Christine. If you've been following this blog, you'll have seen it before in a post about my application to Google Academy (not successful) and my struggle to figure out how to upload a video to YouTube (finally successful). I use this clip during professional development workshops to illustrate how the creative use of new tools has given me a powerful means to meet individual students' needs and help them overcome serious barriers to success.

Christine had failed senior science twice before coming to the Learning Centre, but even though our program is individualised and she was taking an easier course, she was once again struggling. I kept trying to reassure her that she could do the work, but this was the last course that had to be completed before she graduated, time was getting short, and she was becoming more and more frozen. She had even begun to hyperventilate and experience panic attacks.

Christine is now working and happy in her new life after high school, but her plea for teachers to listen to our students still haunts me sometimes. Students want to do well but also carry a lot of fears. They don't want to draw attention to themselves. They don't want to risk drawing the ire of the teacher or taunts of their peers. They don't want to appear lacking in skill or understanding. As a result, by trying to do what they think the teacher wants, they miss out on getting their own needs met.

I regret that over 35 years of teaching I've missed many opportunities to find ways to help students overcome their fears and doubts. I left them trapped in the isolation of silence because I didn't tune in to their cues. When they were off task and behaving 'badly', too often I responded to the behaviour rather than stop and ask myself if it was a symptom of a learning deficit or long term frustration. Were they not learning because they were unmotivated or were they unmotivated because they weren't learning?

Now, I try to counsel the students in my classes on the importance of being good consumers of education. I ask if they'd ever let a salesperson in a store persuade them to buy a garment that was not the right size. (They laugh at the thought.) Wouldn't they'd ask ask the clerk to keep looking until he/she had found them what they need? (They nod.) I go on to say that not getting their needs met in a class is the same thing and that they must speak up in the same way to make sure their teacher is doing her job for them -- meeting their needs and ensuring they end up understanding a skill or concept even if it takes many questions and requires a lot of time.

I haven't always been very good at anticipating the assumptions students are making about learning priorities and acceptable responses. Now, with Christine's words ringing in my ears whenever I make up a new activity or write a new unit study, I do my best to see it through Christine's eyes. I ask myself if she would experience my lesson as a way to achieve breakthroughs and "walk around the circle" or whether it would trap her inside, hold her down, and make her hyperventilate again.

And so Christine, I have two things to say to you: first, I'm so sorry it took me so long to find a way to make education work for you, and also, I've taken up your words to heart. I'm doing my best each day to remember that I'm not teaching skills, content, and subjects -- I'm teaching people, and that I'm in the business of helping my students come to value learning as an act of empowerment -- one that should help them too feel free.