Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Professional Development?

flickr CC image via mikecogh

I've been grappling with the concept of professional development. Teachers tend to refer to any workshop, seminar or in-service as professional development, but I'm not sure about this.

Undoubtedly there are many valuable and purposeful workshops, seminars and in-services for teachers across many teaching and learning contexts. Teachers can be trained to do a number of specific things quite efficiently and adequately that enhance their skills as a teacher, but I don't call that professional development. I call it professional training. When we train as professionals, we learn how to do something, not why we do it, what philosophical rationale is behind it or what makes it a pedagogically sound practice. We learn new strategies so we can do our job. There is usefulness in all of this. There are loads of valuable predetermined teaching tools and resources that come with an already established set of instructions; sort of a paint-by-numbers situation. When we learn how to use these we aren't really developing anything, however. To develop as professionals means to engage in a quite different process.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Interculturalism- Engaging Diverse Communities

I  am so excited to know that Innovative Voices in Education- Engaging Diverse Communities will be in print very soon. To be sure, contributing to this book as an author has been one of the most thought provoking projects I have ever collaborated on, and I am exceedingly impressed by the depth and value of its messages. Seventeen authors from all over the place wrote each of the book's seventeen chapters; each from their own unique and insightful perspectives.

Eileen Kugler, our executive editor, is from Washington, DC. Eileen is an internationally recognized advocate of the unique benefits that diversity brings schools, communities and workplaces. Eileen’s award-winning first book, Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why diverse schools are good for all kids, inspires honest dialogue and sincere reflection among all who read it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fear and Opportunity- turning the table on bullies

Fear and opportunity... we generally place a negative or defeating connotation on the word "fear." What if fear were a useful element. Perhaps it can be.

A recent conversation between fellow Nemeticists, Daniel Durrant (@ddrrnt), Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveForX) and I, led us to question the presence and value of fear in a complex adaptive system that is a school. Fear is rampant in education: fear of failure; fear of consequence; fear of authority; fear of bullying... fear in every case manifested as anxiety and stress. But what of a potential lack of fear... would this be a better state? Let's glare at the issue of bullying for sake of argument. Daniel made a profound statement worth analyzing...
"bullies prepare us for a world that will hurt us, but we want to prepare bullies for a world that will love them."
I know there is no shortage of people who will say this is an unfair and imbalanced trade-off, but I disagree. Every element of a complex adaptive system is engaged in the system in one way or another- that's what makes the system complex... but it's the manner in which these elements (let's just say people) adapt that ultimately determines the sustainability of the system. Fear is a biological condition with a purpose- when exposed to it we make a choice to fight or flee. Either way, the choice we make will determine the quantum direction our action will send us. Both decisions put us in motion. Robert Sylwester describes the reflexive and reflective properties of this process as related as in they're both triggered by fear... fear of imminent threat to survival, and fear of what is unknown, but not an imminent threat. In both contexts, it's up to individuals to react as appropriately as possible to mitigate the fear.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Our dive into self organized learning...

After learning about Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiment, I started thinking about how the context of Self-Organized Learning Environments would help my students. Last March we created a SOLE in our fifth grade math class. Watch this TED Talk by Mitra...

My colleague Joel and I both teach fifth grade this year, but last year Joel was a substitute teacher and spent some time in my classroom teaching math in our SOLE. This year he contacted me with questions about implementing a SOLE in his new math class at a different school, and now the ball is rolling for both of us in an action research project we're sharing between our classes.

The nemetic process began for us by noticing a few things about kids in our math classes. We saw many similar challenges between them. To start we noticed that roughly 65% of our students would have little trouble achieving an acceptable standard in grade five math. What we mulled together though is could these kids do more than acceptable? We think they can.

Next we noticed that about 15% of each class appeared very competent as math learners capable of high achievement. We asked ourselves how to define high achievement and agreed that perhaps we can't really define that. We asked what if there was no limit to how much any child can learn, and that perhaps in our traditional math classes we were placing a false ceiling above these kids. We resolved to do more for them by letting them go.

We then realized that the remaining 20% of our students appeared to struggle with the math content we were teaching in a traditional way. We noticed that they typically fell behind the pace of instruction, and that they appeared anxious and confused much of the time during class. We also noticed that despite their challenges learning math, they were also in most cases the least likely to ask us for help, or work willingly with their parents at home on any extra study activities to reinforce what they were missing.

Joel and I mulled these observations and decided to apply a SOLE philosophy to our respective math classes, and then collaborate in reflection about how to fine tune our process. Joel shared this with his students last week, and I thought it was a great summary of our process...

Self-Organized Learning
1. Work in groups constructively and cooperatively
2. Talk (30 cm voices)
3. Ask questions if you do not know.
4. Help other students who need it.
5. Finish assignment, check and correct answers.
6. 3 choices when done
     a. Help other students having trouble (most important)
     b. Continue on to next lesson
     c. Ten Marks Math (if we have computers and if you’ve earned it).

I added a step to #5 "...and then show your finished work to Mr. Grainger," but for the most part I am operating under the same SOLE process in my class, so now we get busy.

I already have three students who have done a great job self-assessing previously held knowledge and skills which have enabled them to move ahead of the instructional pace I have established. They have, after not quite two units of instruction, been able to challenge themselves and work ahead. They have also been very responsible about picking choice A under step 6 of our SOLE process, and have been routinely learning through teaching their peers about math they have mastered in relative degrees. They are engaging in math in ways they haven't before.

We're also noticing that the kids who typically struggle are appearing less anxious in class as a result of the increase in access points for help. The classroom is a bit louder as a result of all these math conversations going on, but I'm totally fine with that... I like Joel's "30 cm voices." Joel and I are now more free to roam the class and provide guidance where necessary. We teach to the whole class with direct instruction one lesson at a time as our syllabus requires to get through the curriculum for grade five.

The biggest change we're noticing though is in the level of engagement of students in both classes, especially the 65% group. Each for different reasons (all good) and in slightly different ways for each individual, our students are more engaged in the kind of math I like... math that makes us wonder, lets us be wrong on the road to being right and that becomes more than what most students seem to think math is... just work. We watched this awesome video at the beginning of the year to reinforce a different perspective toward math...

Indeed as Galileo said, "mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe." We're going to keep harping that message for our students so math may become wonderous. After all, we can't get away from it anyway; it's everywhere. It would be great to hear from others who are experimenting with self-organized learning in their classrooms.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Badges to help tell our stories...

flickr photo via PinkMoose

I didn't spend much time involved with scouting as a child, but I do remember those badges. I still have some of my handy work from a long time ago... a birdhouse I built for my construction badge; a sardine can first-aid kit I put together for my survival badge and a velvet-covered piece of plywood with my beautiful string art creation nailed and strung to it for my creative art badge. Why have I kept these items for all these years? I think it's because they remind me of a simpler time when people noticed the effort I put into these things, and took the time to engage and acknowledge me with a badge.

On the surface I feel kind of silly admitting that these badges I received mean something to me, but they do. My Twitter tribe and I have been taking a deeper dive into the badge concept as of late. The conversation has me re-thinking the process of badging. Typically badges are awarded to display some degree of competence or effort in a particular domain, but in an educational context I see a slightly different purpose for badging in schools.

I maintain that students need to be engaged in writing their own learning stories. What if badges were used to highlight interesting and engaging elements of each of our learning stories? Further to this, what if badges could be awarded by any member of the school family who notices something interesting and engaging about another's learning story? Administrators, teachers, para-professionals, parents, community members and the students themselves... all of these people could be badge givers- all they would have to do is notice something about another; a specific talent (realized or not by the person possessing it,) a exemplary act; a feat of kindness... anything that allows us to say "good on ya!" to members of the school family that we notice and want to engage by complementing them with a badge.

Consider the possibilities that may emerge within this culture of badging... talents would be noticed with intent by badge givers and realized by the badge recipient. Every member of the school family would become a "badge scout," constantly on the look-out for others in the school nemisphere worth noticing... we'd all be displaying our relative skills and aptitudes, sharing them with each other, and growing our self-esteem in the process, but most of all as we collect our badges we'd be chronicling our learning journeys in a unique and interesting way.

Think of those bumper stickers folks place on their vehicles displaying that they've been to new and exciting places. I am fascinated to notice the places people have gone on their vacation travels as I follow them down the road. The badges we receive in school would be like those bumper stickers... visual snapshots of the places we've been on the learning journey that nobody can take away from us. Our badges would tell the story of our learning purpose and experience. They would become acknowledgments of our learning efforts, not rewards for making them. Students could use them to help tell their learning stories when others see their collections and ask questions about why they received them. I'v decided to introduce a badge project in my class this week.

Here's what I'm thinking. I already have a well-established developmental model within my class that I call the Hope Wheel. Everyone in my class is on the Hope Wheel path. It centers around the concept of hope as an action word and includes four elemental domains: respect in the east; understanding in the south; relationships in the west, and responsibility in the north. I'm going to explain to my students how a badge can be earned for having explored these domains to the point where competency is visible and lessons have been learned. This will be my introduction.

After this introduction I'm going to suggest to my students that they can acknowledge each other too by creating a badge for anything they deem to be worth noticing along the learning paths they travel with their classmates. They will use art class to design their badges, and I'll scan and print them on sticker paper so they can be peeled off and applied to a badge plate, (just a piece of paper they will adorn in a personalized way,) that will be displayed on the wall in class. My guess is that displaying these plates will create many opportunities for my students to talk about where they've been on their learning journeys with anyone who shows interest.

I'm excited to see how this project will evolve, especially as a result of the students taking control of the process.
Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog


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