Next week, a colleague and I will continue our work with a group of teachers in a local school district as we explore more integration of writing into the classroom. We had begun our first week by diving into the Common Core, and now we are using the wonderful resource — Content-Area Writing — as the stepping stone into helping teachers understand the power of writing to learn. During our time together, we are going to be helping scaffold an I Search project, which is based around personally inquiry.
I created the overview above with PowToons, just to give an idea of what an I Search is all about. Meanwhile, I, too, am embarking on an I Search project. My topic? What does science have to do with throwing a baseball pitch? It’s one of those things that I was never good at (pitching) but I watch my sons with wonder as they toss a variety of pitches that makes the ball do funny things in the air. I want to know why that happens, and if there are ways for me to throw a oddball pitch.
The other night, on Teachers Teaching Teachers, host Paul Allison asked a pointed series of questions of Darren Cambridge, one of the organizers behind this month’s Connected Educator events. Allison wondered out loud if Cambridge’s work as a consultant with the US Department of Education to bring more teachers into conversations about connected spaces might also be infringing on what makes those spaces so special to begin with. That is, Allison was wondering what the presence of the DoE does to teachers who, on their own, are making connections that are meaningful and situated with personal inquiry, without the overarching directive from administrators and government agencies.
Let me just say that I like the idea of dedicating time to invite more colleagues into connected spaces and conversations, and Cambridge seems like a smart, thoughtful facilitator of the effort. (The research group that he works for — American Institutes for Research — has been hired as a consultant by the Department of Education to oversee the Connected Educator initiative). I liked how Cambridge talked about the idea of nurturing experiences for connected teachers so that they hopefully bringing those experiences back into the classrooms to impact students, and how the Connected Educator might be a starting place for some teachers not sure of where to begin.
But Paul Allison made an important point about government intrusion, and it is a worry that we need to keep in our minds.
If our spaces and connections are sanctioned and coordinated from a government body (or, even in the case of a school district, by a superintendent or administrative team), doesn’t that take some of the agency out of the teachers who are searching for a space to connect and follow their own paths of inquiry? We even noted how many publishers are now marketing their materials with “blended learning” and other tags that liberally borrow terminology from a real movement in education, and then package it up in expensive programming that is watered-down learning experiences for students (but makes school administrators feel good because they have invested money in technology-infused learning).
Fellow TTT participant Paul Oh likened Paul Allison’s line of questioning to past discussions about blogging in the classroom, and what happens when teachers (as an official voice of adulthood and authority) validate online writing that young people do outside of school by making it a school writing assignment? Does that make the blogging less meaningful for young writers? (I say, yes, but agree with Paul Oh that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try).
On TTT, after thinking about what Paul Allison was asking, I responded that we should consider this an opportunity to use the networking power of the DoE to showcase ways that teachers can learn from each other. We can use it, as it may be using us, even though that feels uncomfortable. The alternative is that we have a government system that ignores the powerful learning and connections that can transform teaching, and we don’t want that, either, do we?
A larger question in my mind, too, is: Given the Department of Education’s role in Connected Educator, are they gathering data of those connections and sharing of teaching for some larger analysis of teaching culture? My guess is that this is probably the case, given the money they are investing in the effort (see some initial reporting already underway) and the fact that Cambridge’s group is a research organization.
That’s a combination sure to get the notice of some young readers (OK, maybe hot dogs, too), and Barbara Gregorich’s freeform poetic/historical novel Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog has a great hook: a famous old-time baseball player whose dog became the mascot of a sad sack team that finally started winning. Told in the style of one- or two-page poetry, the lens of this book is the early days of baseball, and Jack Graney was a star about to be born on the Cleveland baseball fields.
But his team struggled mightily for many seasons, and then along came Larry, a bull terrier won in a bet, whose enthusiasm and energy encouraged the team, and energized the fans, to strive harder and believe in the idea of the baseball team as a “pack” that works together, and not just a collection of individual talent. There were many moments of disappointment for Graney, particularly when Larry goes missing and ends up dying in a street dog fight late in the book, but the memory of Larry and the team chemistry does finally come together, as the Cleveland team wins a pennant race and then the World Series. (Graney went on to become a name in baseball radio).
So, the story is great. The poems? Eh. I know it’s unfair as a reader to do so, but I hold up Sharon Creech (Love that Dog) and Thanhha Lai (Inside Out and Back Again) as examples of this genre, where the poems themselves are like little literary leaves on a larger tree. Here, in my view, the poems were just fair, and serviceable for the narrative. I wasn’t blown away by the poems, although there were a few pieces towards the end of the book that I enjoyed, and found myself deep in their rhythms. Luckily, the narrative of the player and his dog, and baseball history, carried me right through.
I appreciate Gregorich for sharing the history of Graney, Larry and the Cleveland team, and I will be sharing this book with my students, hoping the topic itself will draw a few into poetry and history.
Here is the video archive from the other night’s webcast for Teachers Teaching Teachers on the theme of The Connected Educator. I was one of the guests with host Paul Allison as we chatted about the month of activities, and what it means to be a connected teacher. The main guest was Darren Cambridge, who is helping to coordinate the activities under the umbrella of the US Department of Education (his research organization has been hired to help with the coordination).
As we move into Connected Educator Month (see the calendar of amazing opportunities to learn about how to connect with the initiative), I’ve been trying to think through the role of technology and online networking in developing learning communities. At our school, we have grade-level Communities of Practice meetings every week, as part of an initiative by our principal to really expand conversations among teachers and share best practices as well as use data to make curriculum changes, and document those shifts.
I work with a great team of sixth grade teachers. We not only get along well, but we also are open to new ideas, ready to make shifts based on the recommendations of colleagues, and put students at the front of everything. For example, our work for much of the last year has been how to move more writing instruction into the science and social studies classrooms, and together, we have been working on solid curriculum shifts to make that happen. We’ve questioned what we are doing, celebrated the successes and worried about the things that didn’t go the way we wanted.
So, the school-based COP time works. Sort of. Not always.
What doesn’t work is that the professional community is not necessarily organic and natural, and not built on our “opting in” to the discussions. We don’t have a choice. We have a COP time and we have to use it. We need to be there. It works for us on my team because we already had a strong foundation of flexibility and (somewhat) honest discussions. But if you gave me a choice during that time to sit every week with my colleagues, or to have the option to use that time to connect online with a larger, more focused group of ELA/digital media advocates …. I might choose the latter.
Choice is the key in that statement, and also, as many have noted, that “long tail” aspect of the Internet that provides you with entry points with other people you might not otherwise intersect with is a key component of how technology and online social connections make sense. My personal inquiry path becomes my own, not my principal’s (whose ideas around communities of practice are solid, and whose intent to spur difficult discussions makes sense, and who spent a lot of time figuring out how to make COP work in our school schedule).
The problem, as I see it, is that when the PLC/COP becomes digital, it gets harder and harder for teachers to show the work that was done. In other words, I need to spend some time just searching for folks in various online spaces (Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc.), and building my networks, but that kind of work is not necessarily quantifiable to a principal/superintendent and it may not directly impact the student learning in my classroom. For our school-based COP time, we have actionable plans, with results that we can turn to (whether they work out or not). This part of the equation seems to be missing in many online PLC spaces, and if we want our administrators to be able to see the power of the connected educator, it seems to me that we need to make those results more visible.
Ideally, I would love to see a balance of working hand-in-hand with my school-based colleagues, but also have them come with me into shared online spaces for inquiry work that moves us beyond our building, even as it reconnects that online work back into the learning environment and expectations of our students. It can happen. I just need to figure out a good system to make it work.
Check out this very interesting short film by Douglas Rushkoff called Life Inc. that explores modern life in different tangents, as impacted by corporate influence in our lives.
“People are accepting the ground rules … unaware of the fact that these rules were written by people at a very specific moment in history with a very specific agenda in mind… there’s no way to prosper in this world without selling out.” — Rushkoff
If true, what does that mean for us and our students? He advocates finding time for more personal connections between people, and taking the time to care about others, not about money or jobs.
One of the reasons I am taking part as a ‘student’ in the Gamestar Mechanic Summer Learning Program is to understand better how to give feedback to my students during our video game design unit. This morning, I received some fantastic feedback on my game (shared here yesterday) called The Odyssey of Tara. (I invite you to play the game).
Notice the balance of positive to advice, and also, how detailed the comments are. As the game designer, I can tell that not only did my teacher play my game, but they were making notes about each level, and offering up their own experiences as an outside player and as a game designer. That kind of duel views is helpful when creating a video game.
Now, I need to step back myself and see the game through their eyes.
August is “Connected Educator” month, which is another way of saying that folks are trying to make visible the power of networks, collaborations and connections that come about when teachers connect with other teachers. Of course, we do this mostly in our own buildings. But more and more, educators are reaching out to various online communities to find ways to share, explore, learn and borrow ideas from one another. I view the month as a way to showcase those kinds of connections, as partnership to the connections we have with our own colleagues in our own school buildings.
The diagram above is an attempt on my part to map out the various communities that I find myself part of, either as a contributor, creator or just active listener. The diagram is part of a webcomic I am also making, but it felt right to share it out on its own, too, although I still feel as if I am leaving something out …
I am immersed in a unit around adventure/story game design with the Gamestar Mechanic Summer Online Learning program. I decided to use an offshoot of The Odyssey to create my game. Notice how I also titled each section/chapter as part of the development of the story (exposition, climax, etc.) because I might use this as a demonstration of connecting story to game in the classroom.
I did try to make this game a little trickier than others, so let me know how it goes. Bring Tara home!