Thursday, March 27, 2014

Taming the Flood

Ever heard this one? “I hope I die during an inservice session, because the transition between life and death would be so subtle.” While many people understand professional development to be drudgery at best, many others have discovered a spring of excellent PD, to the degree that it can feel like one is drowning in a flood of options.

Educators around the world are using online resources to connect with others like them (or not like them!) With this ongoing source of personalized, 24/7, usually free professional development at everyone’s fingertips, the broader issue has become how to manage all that information continually springing up anew on a daily basis. Exhibit A recently seen on Twitter:
Try these strategies to help transform the flood into the most useful information for YOU!

1-Choose ONE topic that is giving you the biggest headache right now or a type of teaching/project you’re dying to try. Maybe it’s project-based learning, how to deal with unruly kiddos, the flipped classroom, or a good app for making digital posters.

2. Search on Google, Twitter, Youtube, and sources of free webinars, like is an awesome source for free, hour-long webinars on various educational topics, but even with great sources like these, it can be an overwhelming amount of information, only to be forgotten when the next class walks in the door. You’ve reached the flood. Time to narrow down the river of results.

3. Set limits through curation. There is plenty of useful information out there, but it’s hard to organize and make sense of it. Do this by choosing a tool that you can save good ideas through. I always think I’ll somehow miraculously remember that awesome resource for teaching about technology without any computers exactly when I need it, but even if I do, I don’t remember how to find it. That is when content curation tools help. There are a plethora of options, but here are three:
  • - installs a bookmarklet on your browser that let’s you save sites with descriptions and tags, for easy reference and search later on (my favorite)
  • Symbaloo - saves web content into a tile format on a specific topic
  • LiveBinders - save web content into an old-school binder format with tabs for different topics

Now, save the best sources you come across to that tool. Notice the sites above are not simple “bookmark” tools, that add everything to one gigantic list. They let you categorize and organize where each item is saved, so you can actually find and use it later, (i.e., when you come around to teaching fractions again next year and have run out of ideas.)

4. Set a time limit of 30 min, 60 min, etc. to look for resources on your chosen topic, so you aren't swamped in the possibilities. Another option is to set a target number of resources to find; e.g., “I’ll stop when I’ve bookmarked 10 things regarding flipping the classroom.”

5. Analyze your findings.
Do not skip this piece! Otherwise, its just a waste of time. By actually sitting down and determining how you can (or can’t) use the information you just found, you’re getting a refreshing drink of spring water, instead of just dipping your hand in the flood of information, drying it off, and forgetting about it. We all reflect and analyze information differently. Maybe you blog about it, talk with a friend, list possibilities, etc. But either way, decide if and how you could adapt that strategy to fit your setting, and try it soon.

How often does a PD meeting actually make a beneficial improvement to your teaching tomorrow? By using the tools already available, you can pull ideas out of the flood of information, organize, and implement them to become a better educator. Isn’t that what sound professional development should be?

photo credit: onesevenone via photopin cc

Monday, March 24, 2014

Critical Thinking is Critical!

Last week, I taught my students about Facebook. Not how to use it, they know that already. Not how to be safe and smart, we're getting to that. I taught them a few basic etiquette guidelines for using social media. The biggest revelation for the kids was not that we were talking about Facebook in school (which is generally not done), but that we could have a (relatively) intelligent conversation about how we use social media, and how to be interesting people to digitally be around. We talked about the most annoying things people do on social media, we talked about how often to post to be polite, and how not to be boring. But my point is not the social media. It's thinking critically about the world around us.

For most students, they'd never sat down and thought about HOW they used social media. They just do it and don't ask questions.  It is our job as educators to teach students how to think critically about how they interact with the world. It is one of those 21st century skills that gets lip service all over the internet, but for good cause. Critical thinking and metacognition (thinking about your thinking process) help kids develop a more analytical eye to the world. Without this skill, they just get carried along by the waves of the most popular idea in the room at the time.

Today, I began a project with my 8th grade photojournalism students regarding identity. We talked briefly about how part of growing up is figuring out who you really are, behind the identity you project (particularly as it relates to social media. Then, we watched these two videos depicting how people hide behind masks, and what types of identities we hide. If we don't provide opportunities like this for kids to examine and question their assumptions, many will not choose to do that on their own. As educators, we must foster the type of environment that welcomes questions and critical thinking. Not all of our lessons have to be based around the obvious. We don't just have to limit them to critical thinking about Shakespeare through close reading. We can incorporate the world they live in, and help them begin to analyze why things are the way they are. This is imperative for all of us. Without this skill, how will they be able to envision and create a better world?


Monday, March 17, 2014

Common Core & Technology: Does it taste good?

I keep seeing bits of the new Common Core Standards (CCSS) showing how much they incorporate
digital media. This is very true.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge, Writing Standards Grade 7 
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation. 
If that isn't the definition of teaching kids how to do online research, I don't know what is. I've spent much of my last 4 years trying to teach this skill to 7th graders (some more effectively than others). Like any good tech teacher, I didn't read every word of the standards, but did a keyword search for a few important terms to see how prevalent technology really is in these new standards. These are what I came up with (in the ELA standards): [The number in parentheses is the number of times it appeared in the document.]

Media (55)
Audio (9)
Digital (46)
Technology (24)

It turns out they're pretty important. Upon perusing how each of these terms was used, it describes exactly what many educators have referred to as 21st Century Skills for several years now.

  • Publish writing online
  • Collaborate and interact with others online
  • Link to other information
  • Gather information from multiple sources
  • Tailor online searches
  • Identify strengths and limitations of online media
As I reflected on these skills that truly are crucial for how we interact, and how we go about teaching them to kids, it kept reminding me of my son. He is 15 months old. Like any good toddler, he learns about his world by putting everything in his mouth. Speck of paper on the floor? In the mouth. Graham cracker from mom? In the mouth. Dog food? In the mouth. Egg shell? In the mouth. Book? In the mouth. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), he'll start to discriminate what tastes good and what doesn't. 

Students learning to use the internet are the same way. At first, everything goes down the hatch. If it's on the internet, it must be true. But then, as they learn more about HOW it works, they start to identify signs that a site might not be beneficial to them and focus on others.

I hope that teachers don't brush off the digital aspect of these standards. Teachers need to stop and evaluate how they use technology in their own lives, personally and professionally, and realize that students do and will use technology even more than that. We must teach them how to use it wisely and to their own benefit, and not just shove everything they find online into their mouth.