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.

Monday, May 21, 2018

My Robert Frost Moment

When a school year begins to close, certain rituals occur. Students and faculty alike get excited for the upcoming months of no school. Teachers begin cleaning their classrooms, removing a year's accumulation of detritus. And at my school, the annual renewing of the one-year contract ensues. This last activity is always anticipated, as it elicits thoughts of the next year and what new techniques I will try, with which colleagues I will attempt new collaborations, and what new texts I want my English students to read.

This year, however, I'm a bit stuck.

I am completing a Master's degree in Educational Technology at Loyola University Maryland, and I have come to love the field and its possibilities. My feelings are so strong that they are encroaching on my excitement for next year's English classes and all the possibilities that come with that. I know that an edtech coach position at my school is simply not in the budget currently. And as my contract meeting looms (it is next Tuesday), I face a few exhilarating and frightening choices and thoughts:

1) Do I switch careers?

Option one would allow me to embrace educational technology and jump in with both feet. On the flip side, I have been teaching English at my school for twenty-two years, and I still love teaching English and inspiring young writers and thinkers. The freedom I possess at my school to teach and read a wide variety of books and subjects would be hard, almost impossible, to find elsewhere. Am I ready to abandon all I've gained in order to chase something that has kindled a new passion?

2) Do I remain patient and give myself a year to weigh options?

I am only just graduating this August and there is no rush to begin a new career path. With the extra year, I could test new techniques in my classroom and work to help others at my school become more comfortable with edtech. Maybe I could get some book studies started. I could work on a video reservoir of helpful tips and tricks with our LMS and other technologies. I have often been impatient in the past and making poor decisions under the gun is something I do extremely well. Maybe I need to learn to take some time.

3) Instead of diverging paths, create a convergent path.

As evidenced from the picture above, I've been thinking of this as a diverging path, and that the choosing of one path will make "all the difference," to quote Mr. Frost. Perhaps, however, this is my time to create something brand new and push for a hybrid position where I can teach English and be an edtech coach. While there may not be money in my school's budget for a full-time coach, I could propose an approach that would allow me to teach for some periods of the day and then be available as a coach for the others. This would be the dream for me, and it's definitely worth considering.

The myriad thoughts swirling through my brain are exciting and a bit exhausting. While I certainly enjoy reading all the books on edtech and pedagogy that I can, nothing really prepares you for an actual decision when it has the potential to affect your life so much. Do I dare greatly, as Brene Brown suggests, remain patient, or land somewhere in between?

This will be a thoughtful week, with some anxiety, I am sure. If you've been in a similar situation, I'd love to hear your insights! Comment below!