Monday, June 18, 2018

Overcoming Barriers with Connection

Technology gives us the facilities that lessen the barriers of time and distance - the telegraph and cable, the telephone, radio, and the rest. -- Emily Greene Balch

Balch, an American economist, Nobel Prize winner, and social justice warrior, lived from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th Century. I only point this out because her quote above, while focusing on technology that is considered archaic and outdated today, is more applicable that ever, especially when considering PLNs and educator connectivity.

This week, I was asked to consider the following question: "What kinds of barriers can connecting help educators (and/or students) overcome?" The instinctive, snarky part of me wanted to immediately answer, "Duh, all barriers," but I decided to repress my inner Sheldon Cooper and attempt to be a bit more thoughtful.

While Balch rightly mentions time and distance as barriers that technology easily overcomes (and for educators, these barriers are huge in their own rights), I prefer to think of the barriers of heart and of inspiration. More than any other barriers, and more crucial to my own connection to other educators, these are the two that technology has helped me overcome.

One of the greatest boons of connection with my PLN has been finding educators who are basically kindred spirits. While we may disagree on specific topics, out approaches to education, to learning, and to life and inherently the same. Many of my PLN members are separated by those dastardly barriers of time and distance, but technology enables me to keep up with their lives on a daily basis. To me, this goes far beyond minutes or miles. My PLN isn't like keeping up with business clients whose yearly order I am afraid of losing. It is more like a family, and some of the best people I know in this world, I have met online. I was talking with one member of my PLN family earlier this week, and she mentioned how close we were, even though we had never met. Some may consider this odd; I consider it the beauty of technology. It brings like-minded people together in a world where this is desperately needed.

Along with heart is the barrier of inspiration. I am a huge fan of Twitter, and one of the hallmarks of Twitter is the hashtag and the Twitter chat. There seems to be a Twitter chat for every topic these days, but that again is where technology overcomes barriers. As Tammy Neil mentions in her "One Rural Teacher's Journey to Passionate Teaching," she was able hunt down teachers in rural communities and connect to discuss issues, concerns, and solutions to shared problems. They became their own resource because their situation was special to them.

Consider a potential situation in my own classroom. I'm teaching Frederick Douglass's Narrative and I want an idea for a lesson that will light a fire in my students. Yes, I could Google it, but connection with educators on Twitter, Voxer, or YouTube gives me a more personal method of learning from them. Technology does, indeed, shrink the world for educators, and whether a like-minded teacher is down the road in Washington, D.C., or across the globe in Perth, Australia, I can learn at a moment's notice from educators with a specific expertise.

Technology may never substitute the feelings of meeting and relating to someone in person. It's why I'm so excited for next week's ISTE conference in Chicago; I'll get to meet and see again many of those I connect with online. But beyond simple time and distance, technology allows me to hurdle the barriers of heart and inspiration and provides support, fresh best practices, and sometimes just a caring, thoughful word from those in a similar situation to mine. Technology, used appropriately, spreads empathy, and if Emily Greene Balch were alive today, she would be more impressed than ever with its potential.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Notes From #LearnFestATX

"Learning is an active sport."

With these words, Carl Hooker set up the day's action at LearnFest, a beta conference where everything is a risk, nothing is guaranteed, and the expectation is that attendees will become the lifeblood of the experience.

I was smitten.

LearnFest is a rebranding of the popular iPadpalooza that was held for six years. The idea was to de-specify and make it not so much about the iPad but about far-ranging topics, everything from tech tools like Desmos and Flipgrid to ways of thinking, like Genius Hour and mindfulness, itself.

Everything has changed, and all for the better, it seems.

The day began with a brief tutorial but also with a incredible panel of previews of sessions to come. It was an onnovative move to whet the appetite. Presenters spoke for a few minutes on what they would present later in the day, and attendees got to see a bit of what was to come instead of relying on the brief blurb in the Attendify app. It was a stroke of genius.

After the opening ceremonies, all attendees moved to the Interactive Playground. What made this Playground so special was that it was Silent Disco Style. The concept of a silent disco came about when someone looking to throw a block party was banned for noise violations. So he had music pumped to headphones that only the attendees could hear. At LearnFest, there were three simultaneous sessions, all in the same room. Whichever color you tuned into gave you a different presentation. It takes the "rule of two feet" idea from Edcamp and lets multiple sessions be held in a confined space with no stepping on any toes.

Looking across the room, you could see focus on everyone's face as they tuned into their own sessions. Some moved from session to session while others simple changed the color of their headphones and listened to another session from afar. It was an incredibly novel concept.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in more traditional presentations, but even throughout these, the day was punctuated by LeanrFest's unique brand of trying new things and not being afraid to fail. At lunch, there was a game of bingo inspired by Apple Keynote. Through the afternoon sessions, participants kept tabs with one another through Attendify's Activity Stream. So while I was in the sessions on Mindfulness and Hashtag Data Collection, I was also learning new ways to use Desmos, SeeSaw, and developing a Blended Larning Toolkit.

The best part: this was only Day One. Tomorrow, there's a Shark Tank and an UnFestival to look forward to, and more than a few other innovations, I am sure.

While the structure itself is original and fun, it's the participants that truly are making this experience what it is. Everyone is excited to try something new and share ideas, and the camraderie developing is something that is special to conferences like LearnFest. The small, intimate nature of LearnFest is creating not just a community but a feeling more akin to family.

I'll report back tomorrow after Day Two, exhausted and full of new ideas!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Remembering Anthony Bourdain

"The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; 
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good." -- W.H. Auden, "Stop the Clocks"

There comes a time in every person's life when death affects them with what seems like a personal vendetta. When we are young, we don't notice death all that much. In fact, we feel downright immortal at times. When we are extremely old, I would hope, we've come to accept death as a part of life, and if we are fortunate, we are at peace with ourselves and our own inevitable demise. It's that sweet spot that is anything but where I reside now, where my heroes, idols, and and spiritual mentors are leaving this plane of existence and forcing me to reflect on grief, loss, and my own place in this life.





And today, the world lost Anthony Bourdain, chef, writer, world traveler, human. Everyone knows he wasn't perfect, dealing with addiction, depression, and suicidal thoughts. But as I tell my literature students, it seems all the geniuses of this world are severely screwed up in some way. Their genius is an outlet, a way to deal with a world where they don't fit, where they are tormented, where they hurt. And so with the majesty of what they produce, we often discover a boatload of underlying pain, as well.





Bourdain, though. He gave me so much hope. When I first read Kitchen Confidential, over a decade ago, food writing and cooking shows weren't in vogue, as they are now. His blunt, divisive, absolutely cutting approach to writing was as beautiful as it was unpolished and unsentimental. His expose of the restaurant industry didn't make me revile eating out; it mesmerized me. I wanted to know more. I began devouring every book on cooking that I could.





Tony's life was messed up. Late nights followed by drug and alcohol binges was a life I could not fathom and never desired. But his was so adventurous. He would try anything. He would do anything. And he survived it all. And he mellowed, a bit anyway. When he brought No Reservations to television, I was hooked. Here was a show that spanned the globe, celebrating countries both revered and underdeveloped. His shows focused on the people he met as much or more than the food he found, and from when it began airing in 2005 until its final episode in 2013, Tony taught us that the world and the people in it are beautiful and aren't to be feared. He saw war. He saw famine. But the underlying message of every episode was that we are privileged to live on this planet. Parts Unknown picked up where No Reservations left off, and it will be missed. For thirteen years, an extraordinary run, Bourdain essentially lived to remind us all that the world is good, even when it's bad, and we should relish it and its people. 

“[When I die], I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.” -- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

I'm not naive. I know a lot of people disliked Bourdain. For his drug use; his alcohol use; his excessively foul mouth. He was coarse; he was blunt. But now, more than ever, we need his brutal honesty, his unabashed truthfulness, in this world. For me, the world is terribly smaller for his passing. 

And now I wonder who is next. I'm not even close to being finished hurting for Tony, and I worry who is next. And it's on this fear that I must dwell for a moment. Tony, like Robin Williams not so long ago, dealt with something in his final days that I don't understand. I don't know what it is to consider taking my own life, but I feel as if it would be terrifying, paralyzing, and depressing. As a teacher, and as a human, I beg you: if you see a student, a friend, a co-worker, someone you dislike, someone you love, anyone dealing with anything resembling depression or suicidal thoughts, please call someone. Here is a link for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number, accessible 24 hours a day, is 1-800-273-8255. Share this with people you fear may need help.

Thanks for listening to my cathartic vent. I needed to get this out.

Anthony Bourdain (June 25, 1956 - June 8, 2018)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

When Moving "Beyond the Walls" Doesn't Refer to the Classroom

After reading contributions from Tia Simmons (p. 23 of the PDF) and George Couros, I had a #lightbulbmoment of my own. Simmons spoke of her experiences learning outside of the classroom as she shopped for groceries with her father. Couros dwelled on the projections people show on social media and how they often belie a darker truth. Empathy plays a huge part in both of their stories, and this is a quality I have always attempted to foster in my classroom. When asked about the role empathy plays when going “beyond the walls” of the classroom, my initial answer focused on the idea of “beyond the walls” quite literally, with the idea of outside-the-classroom learning that Simmons touts. After reading Couros’s blog, though, I have a different vision. “Beyond the walls” to me no longer means going past the four walls of the classroom or the physical barriers of the school. I’m now wondering how I might enact empathy to move “beyond the walls” that my students (and I, as well, if we’re being completely honest) create on social media, in their words, and in their actions.


Everyone I know forges a defense for himself, a sort of fortress inside of which he feels safe. Heck, I even do this myself. Couros calls it the “highlight reel;” the act of showing the world only what we want it to see. He mentions a teen who posted all the right things online, convincing the world that all was placid in her world. And then she committed suicide. Apparently, nothing was right; appearances are so often like that. We’re the ducks in the old adage: calmly gliding across the water while our feet are paddling furiously below the surface. And while most of us never want the world to see those frenetic feet, most of the world does its best to never attempt to focus on them. I’m guilty of this myself. While claiming to be infused with empathy, there is a part of me that accepts the increasingly-given answer of “fine” when I ask “How are you today?” It seems this is some twisted social contract. We are required to inquire of others; others are beholden to provide a simple answer; the person who queries accepts this benign, bland answer and breathes a sigh of relief that no more of his time is taken.

If I truly went “beyond the walls,” however, I would push. I wouldn’t ask students questions where “fine,” “yes,” and “no” are acceptable responses, just like I wouldn’t ask questions of my students that they can easily Google. If I want them to think critically in the classroom, then I must align my empathy with that thinking, so that engagement is necessary and relationships are strengthened. I need to delve more deeply, ask them what they did since the last time I saw them, notice and be up front about them not looking well, and if they project a wall, at the very least tell them, “I’m here if you need anything” or “If you want to talk later, I’m available.”

Photo Credit: David Dutrow

Couros speaks of the filtering that we do and how necessary it is because of the plague of comparisons in this day and age. But sometimes we filter because, in our quest to be polite, we don’t want others to spend their time on us, because people are so busy that “fine” has become a welcome answer. We do harm to ourselves, mentally and physically, because we are afraid to bother others and we are afraid to ask for help. While we extol the beauty of collaboration in the classroom, for all its virtues, what we need is collaboration in life. I recently tweeted that I felt that more than anything, I needed to help develop my students into decent people. The world needs those more than it needs any kind of genius or innovation. Simple. Kind. Humans. And this is where empathy can help us go “beyond the walls.

So this is my #lightbulbmoment: treating each other well, developing a strong rapport with students, working hard to discover their strengths and weakness; this is all more important than delivering content and so much more important than teaching them the best way to fill in standardized test circles. Going “beyond the walls” in my classroom must mean finding ways to take down projected barriers, brick by brick, and finding the wonderful human inside. It means being there for students who need a mentor, a guide, an ear or a shoulder. Every student is an expert in something; every student has talents; every student deserves the best. No pedagogy, no material, no platform will ever mean as much to my students as my time and my empathy, and moving forward, that must be my mantra, if I want any real growth and learning in my classroom.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Leveraging the Power of Social Media in the Classroom

For many teachers, the thought of using social media in education is unthinkable, especially since there is still such a visible push to eliminate smartphones from school hallways and classrooms. Since one of our major goals as teachers is student choice, voice, and agency, however, it is imperative that we look more closely at social media and how it might encourage, strengthen, and empower our students. Used correctly, social media in the classroom has the power to engage students and teachers, give students authority and voice, and allow teachers to learn from their students.

In our reading for my graduate school course this week, as well as in our teleconference with Marialice B.F.X. Curran, we were bombarded with the importance of giving students agency, as they are so capable of tremendous achievements when given command of their learning. While many of us already accepted this basic tenet of education, the focus on allowing social media to guide student voice and choice is one that not normally given much credence.

When many educators think of social media, they project their own horrible experiences with it on their students. They worry about inappropriate comments; they worry about trolls; they worry about safety. All of these concerns are valid and are areas to consider, but so often, educators, myself included, think first of the negatives and never give ourselves the chance to get to the positives. So what can social media do for our students?

Letting the Students Lead the Way

When we talk about student agency, we want to empower them in order to help them achieve more. One amazing benefit of social media in the classroom is their familiarity with it. As Tracy Brady says in Leveraging Social Media for Learning,"We need to harness the power of what they already know and are comfortable using." Students get to be the masters when we enter the arena of social media. Instead of having them regurgitate facts or fill out worksheets, we can leverage social media to the point where they not only create, but teach others, including teachers, how to accomplish something. If we can get our students teaching what they know to each other, learning will accelerate.
Student Visibility

Another benefit of social media is promoting their work in your class to the wider public. Now, certainly we want to keep our students safe, but having class social media accounts can really make their learning visible. As Irene Bal, a lecturer at Loyola University Maryland, recently wrote in a blog post, "social media platforms are great to showcase student work, promote special events/programs, and acknowledge student awards." Student learning and achievements should never be hidden away within the four walls of the classroom. Instead of posting their work on hallways, why not share it digitally where they can receive true recognition? And when a student produces something amazing, tag parents, administrators, educators, and companies who may be interested. Who knows what kinds of contacts will develop!

At my school, we have a program called Solutions Showcase where students are encouraged to contact experts in fields that interest them and gain assistance in identifying and correcting some void. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are perfect for reaching out to experts and beginning a dialogue.
Expanding Classroom Walls

Extending the last point, social media offers students the opportunity to learn in ways I never could as a younger person. Classrooms cannot be enclosed by four walls, and social media gives us ways to have students learn science from actual scientists, astronauts, and zoologists. They can hop on YouTube and connect with writers to learn more about that book they love. They can follow Neil deGrasse Tyson's amazing Twitter feed to see how deeply odd and wonderful this universe of ours truly is. My mantra through all things edtech lately is, "you are only limited by your imagination." And when it comes to social media, our students' imaginations are far greater than our own. We need to give them the reins and see how far, and how fast, they can take us to promised land of education.
Baby Steps

I know social media will come as a shock to many educators, but take your time. Ask students about their preferred platforms. Ask them how they think they could be used in the classroom. Read about the platforms. Consider student safety and privacy concerns. Ask other educators who are more familiar for their help. The benefits of social media far outweigh the disadvantages, and the more you know, the less you'll look like those buffoons in Congress who didn't even know how to ask Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook (BONUS!). And even better, the more you know, the more you can leverage these platforms in the classroom to promote student voice, choice, agency, and achievement!

Monday, May 28, 2018

PLN Assemble!

Ever since I was young, I've been obsessed with superheroes. When I was 7 or 8, my mom hand crafted an amazingly realistic Robin costume for Halloween. To this day, it's the best costume I've ever had. It was so true to what I saw in the comics and in cartoons, I was blown away. I FELT like I was Robin when I wore it. Compared to all the plastic-masked superhero costumes in vogue when I was young, mine was the pinnacle of superhero cool.
As I matured, my tastes shifted from sidekicks to my two favorite superheroes of all time: Batman and Iron Man. While I never aspired to be a billionaire playboy like Bruce and Tony, what I loved about them both was that they were humans who used their intelligence to help others. The weren't aliens; they weren't mutated science experiments like Peter Parker or the X-Men. They were something I could become if I used my brain, and I loved that.

Through Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and even George Clooney, I relished every Batman film. I reveled in the glory that was the Christian Bale trilogy of darker Batman movies, but as I aged more, I found myself drawn to Tony Stark and Iron Man much more than Bruce and the Bat. I chose snark and snappy comebacks over brooding and the sore throat that inevitably came when I tried to speak like Batman. Soon after this shift, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began its supremacy at the box office. In Robert Downey, Jr., I saw the perfect embodiment of my hero, and I began to discover even more in common with the Avenger. I was rash at times, impatient even. I hurried to try to fix problems, and I often created more problems in the process. When I began a project at school, I tuned others out, found myself not always seeking help, and thinking I had all the answers.
A decade later, as I viewed Avengers: Infinity War for a second time, I saw a more mature Stark, though he still held on to his signature snark and superiority complex. But he was now a hero who knew he needed others to succeed. He was a team player. He cared more for others than for himself. And as I watched Tony and the Avengers combat Thanos, I realized that my affinity for superheroes in some way lead me to a profession where I have formed my own wonder team. Tony has the Avengers, and I have my PLN.

Realizing that the Avengers are just a high-scale PLN was a shock to me in the theater, and then I couldn't stop making comparisons. Like the Avengers, each member of my PLN has a special talent and a specific personality (albeit without the sweet costume, sadly). Each member brings something the others in the group do not possess, and when we share, the entire team is stronger. The Avengers have Thanos, an entity obsessed with his own brand of mercy, as their nemesis. My PLN has inequity, social capital gaps, hunger, literacy gaps, and more; we attempt to combat these issues to give our students a fair chance in this world and to let each student shine with his or her own special talent. The Avengers aren't perfect. They bicker and let ego get in the way, at times. My PLN is the same. We aren't always shiny, happy campers singing "Kumbaya." While we don't often degenerate into wars either Civil or Infinity, there can be miscommunication, hurt feelings, and uncomfortable breakups. When we need each other, however, our strong bonds overcome our differences.
A PLN, like a good superhero team, needs additions and, sometimes, subtractions. It needs to evolve in order to attack specific concerns and issues, and members will come and go. But the PLN is an essential part of a master teacher's arsenal. My own PLN is made up of people I see on a daily bass as well as some I have never met in person, but who I feel comfortable calling on for help with any topic. Twitter, Skype, Google Hangout, and Voxer are incredible tools to help you build a PLN of educators from around the globe. Not too long ago, I created this YouTube playlist of videos explaining the hows and whys of creating a PLN. I invite you to watch the videos and then ask yourself how much more you could accomplish and how much more you could help students achieve with the assistance of a band of your own personal superheroes.

And just remember, while you may feel like Iron Man with all his technology and expertise at times, there will also be moments where you have to wear the Hawkeye mantle, standing awkwardly to the side with little to do. Use these moments to soak up the talents of your PLN and learn from them, adding to your own special powers in the process. You will have moments to shine, and you will grow stronger working with a group focused on a common goal.

Now, if I could only market my PLN the way Marvel does the Avengers, I'd be all set! :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Influence of the Connected Educator

I, like many educators, use the term "connected educator" perhaps too lightly. Yes, I am proficient in Google Suite for Education and with Apple and Microsoft products; I love using Flipgrid in the classroom; I blog (thought not as much as I should) and I love using Twitter for education chats and for connecting with my PLN. But am I truly harnessing the power of being a connected educator?
In his contribution for the anthology EduSnap17, Vol 1, Curren Dee laments, "The problem is that my school would say they provide digital access because we have access to Chromebooks and iPads, but this is NOT digital access." Curran describes classrooms where he is provided worksheets and limited choice, and then he paints of picture of how he learns at home. With true access, the world is at his fingertips. He is able to explore and investigate all manner of topics that interest him, all while his classmates are subjected to the education provided by their teacher at their "connected school."

Like many buzzwords, "connected educator" makes us feel like we are progressive, that we are somehow introducing students to the wide world that Curran explores away from school. Yet how many connected students are in our truly unconnected classrooms, feeling bored or out of place? Why am I not leveraging all the tools at my disposal to improve student learning? How does my image as a connected educator impact my students, both directly and indirectly?

Directly, I am actively inhibiting student learning any time I do not put my students at the center of a lesson or unit. Students are curious and they want to learn. Providing the most choice and as many outlets for their curiousity as possible is incumbent upon me. Using our iPads and other devices in the classroom break down the traditional four-wall structure of learning and open to students infinite possibilities. Studying Brave New World? Why not find an expert on Vedic Hinduism to join us via Skype or Flipgrid and answer questions about Aldous Huxley's philosophies as he wrote his novel? How can I best allow students to publicly share their written work and projects to a wider community than just the classroom or school? Dr. Nicol Howard writes in an Edutopia piece entitled "5 'Be's' for Connected and Curious Educators," "Be willing to connect with and learn about your colleagues." Am I the world's leading expert on BNW and Huxley? Of course not, so this means to give my students the best experiences, I must stand on the shoulders of giants and connect with those educators who are or who simply have amazing lesson plans. Being a connected educator means using all means possible to engage my students and enrich their experiences in school.
Indirectly, how I leverage technology in the classroom changes my students' views toward the world and their places within it. Howard's fifth "Be" in her article is "Be a current and curious educator." Being able to model for my students different platforms and apps is important enough, but being able to model intellectual curiosity is greater still. For every Curran who rushes home to his computer and his internet to research whatever is buzzing in his brain, there are ten who see their iPads and/or phones solely as portals for Fortnite or who rush home to no computer, no internet, no devices at all. Truly engaging students with the power of connectivity gives them a voice, gives them a choice in their learning, and this could change everything for them. Even if it changes everything for just one of my students, it is still worth it. I cannot single-handedly close the equity gap. I cannot freely hand out social capital to those with little. But for the time students are in my classroom, I can make it an equitable place where every student's opinion matters; where everyone is respected and respectful; and where, if only for forty minutes a day, they have options they may not for the other 23 hours a day.

Before I call myself a connected educator again, I must do better to expand this term to more fully encompass what I want to do or be, but what I actually do. I need more lessons and units with students at the center, engaging collaboratively with each other and calling on experts around the world through technology to explore topics that are well beyond my four walls and my own knowledge.

In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Teachers Create What They Experience, presented by Katie Martin, Martin advocates for using all the tools at our disposal in innovative ways to make sure we do not squelch the love of learning and the curiosity with which our students arrive to school. While bypassing the hurdles and obstacles that come with technology in schools is never easy, the outcomes, directly and indirectly, are far too important to gloss over. This mindset, moving onto the 2018-2019 school year, will be my new focus, and I am excited to see where it leads me and my students.