Friday, September 25, 2015

The benefits of reinventing the wheel

"I can't do that. I don't know...this is scary. Really scary! How do you do it?" These are words of productive struggle. From teachers. 

Productive struggle has become the new phrasing of choice for the point where kids have to learn something new, based on something they've already learned. It's when they get pushed farther than what they already know. Other variations on this theme include teaching with scaffolding, and getting students in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. As teachers, we specialize in getting students to this point, and helping students realizing they really can do what we're helping them accomplish. 

However, as teachers, we're really good at NOT reinventing the wheel. Sometimes the wheel needs to be reinvented though. (In case you haven't noticed, wheels have changed greatly since the stone age. I imagine folks in the tire industry could verify this!) In education, we find something that works, and we stick with it. We save it, file it away for next year, and laminate it. This saves us work and brain power, so it's a good thing, right? Not always. 

I'm in my 6th year of teaching technology, which for 8th grade meant photojournalism. This year, 8th grade has been changed to a STEM course. They already have science and math, so we're working heavily with the robotics/engineering side of STEM. As a technology teacher, who really prefers educational technology in the regular classroom, the technical side of my job is not my forte (i.e., "Why isn't it printing?" ".... I don't know.") but I've muddled my way through. Now, teaching programming with robots, I've been given a significant push out of my comfort zone. However, when push comes to shove, you make it work. So, I've been learning about robots and programming right along with the students. And I tell students this is as new to me as it is to them, and I won't have all the answers for this. 

Every day, I truly feel the productive struggle. As out of my element as it makes me feel, it reminds me that we ask students to do this every day. This empathy reminds me to be patient and as explicit as I can with directions, because it's all they have at the moment. The productive struggle is meaningful for us as teachers because of the empathy it creates, but also because it means we are becoming the lifelong learners we encourage our students to be. By expanding our horizons to something new, even if it's hard, we're gaining valuable knowledge and experience to help us with other things we might attempt. Most importantly, when we admit this learning to students, they witness us modeling trying new things, occasionally failing, and getting back up and trying again. They have to see this if we ever want them to venture out, imagine, and do great things. 

The words at the top of this post are from teachers at a professional development session I taught this week about using social media in the classroom. For some folks, it was an easy transition to say, "I have my own Facebook account, but I'd like to make one for my class to share with parents what we're doing." For others, it was literally scary. But they were willing to take that leap, knowing that there were baby steps they could take and they had a support structure to help them when it was needed. This is what a true productive struggle looks like. 

So as you go through your school year, try something new. It could be something little or something big, but try something that is a little out of your comfort zone; something you're not sure if it'll work yet. You'll understand your students a bit more, learn something new, and model the productive struggle for our students, that they may be inspired to learn as well. 

So go out and reinvent that wheel! :-) 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Are you an innovative educator? This question was posed to me recently, and of course, my first honest answer was no. But then I thought about it and realized it was a leading question. The answer that a person SHOULD give is yes. Too often as teachers, we assume we have nothing to share with others in education, and that all of our learning should come from administrators, specialists, and consultants. Please don't believe this. It is categorically untrue.

Every teacher, no matter their experience level, has something they can share with others. It may be something little, like a trick they've used to get students back into a lesson after lunch, or something big like using Genius Hour projects to change the world. I have become so passionate about encouraging teachers to share what they know because it so rarely happens, and we are so rarely given forums in which to do this. 

So, I encourage you to find some way to share what you know. Obviously, it will benefit others, but it will benefit you even more. When teachers teach teachers, they gain confidence in what they are sharing and doing in the classroom, which in turn, encourages them to try more new things, and share more. Sharing leads to more sharing. Some ways that teachers can share their knowledge include sharing ideas and links on Twitter, offering to present on a subject for a professional development session at their own school or district, submitting an article to a journal for inclusion, or proposing a session at a workshop or conference. You'll be surprised what you'll be able to do when you ask. 

Another way that I highly recommend is going to an Edcamp unconference. No matter where you are located, there is likely an Edcamp somewhere near you. (I coordinate our local EdcampPHX event, though there are hundreds of Edcamps around the world.) These unique gatherings feature teachers as the sole content source. There is no sponsorship and no presenters determined in advance. When participants show up in the morning, they gather together and make a list of sessions they would like to participate in that day. From there, those sessions become the schedule for the day. Anyone who suggested a session simply agrees to get the discussion going on the chosen topic, and everyone in the circle is encouraged to share their expertise. No consultants, just teachers talking to teachers. At every Edcamp I've been a part of, teachers are floored at how good it feels to be validated for the knowledge that they do have, and to learn from other educators. 

One of the first lessons I learned in teaching is, "Close your door and do what's right for kids." Please do what's right for kids, but the best way to get better at what your doing is NOT to close your door. Share your hard-earned knowledge with others, to save them the sweat and tears. Then listen to them, and learn from their wisdom as well. I want to say, "Next time someone asks you what you can share with other teachers, I hope you have a positive reply." However, unfortunately, our system doesn't often encourage teachers to share with others publicly, so you'll likely have to speak for yourself. So instead, I say, be bold. Your knowledge and insight could change another teacher's (and student's) world.