Student PLN’s

I tell myself that I’ll whip up a blog after every #edchat, but, alas, leave every session with my head spinning too wildly with ideas to think about or implement, that I can barely center myself enough to jot down the resources I want to check out.  This week, I couldn’t keep myself from mulling over one possible #edchat topic in particular.

Should teachers have students write blogs, develop class websites/wikis, student PLN’s?

When I first saw this posted as an option on the #edchat poll for Tuesday’s discussion, I immediately thought, “well, duh, of course we should!”. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned traveling around the country meeting other educators over the past few years, it is that what I take for granted to be a “typical” teacher viewpoint may be anything but universal.  Are there still teachers who see no value in having students blog their ideas or contribute to group / community workspaces such as websites and wikis?  This is, of course, a separate issue from those who are still not comfortable with the process of introducing these skills in their classroom.

What got me thinking, though, was the idea of student PLN’s (Personal / Professional Learning Networks).  It seems a natural fit for college students and perhaps even high school students to begin the process of developing a network of others with similar interests. (See The Networked Student highlighted in Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) and Superintendent Eric Conti’s recent blogs)  They already do this through Facebook and other social media.  But what about my fifth-graders?  Can they start to develop PLN’s around their interests in the pursuit of academics?  Could Jason, who is wild about baseball, reach out to other like-minded elementary students to share websites and other resources through, say, a social bookmarking site, in order to do a research project or story?   Could he brainstorm ideas and peer edit work with students in other districts or even other countries as he writes persuasively of his ideas on how the game could be improved or how he believes it has impacted our lives?

I’m not at a point yet in my own learning to know how this could be effectively implemented with students so young, but if we expect students to reach out beyond the classroom to create their own educational opportunities and to take the initiative for pursuing those who can be mentors or co-learners, can we really wait until high school to introduce the concept?

Welcome to the Future

And I’d have given anything

To have my own PacMan game at home.

I used to have to get a ride down to the arcade;

Now I’ve got it on my phone.

Brad Paisley – Welcome to the Future

I took a computer class when I was in high school. The fact that I see this as noteworthy tells you a little something about my age. I used to sit at a machine that looked a lot like a teletype without the little ticker on the side and type in simple BASIC commands. All the heavy-duty computing work was
done by a giant machine that had its own air-conditioned room behind a glass window. I think my BlackBerry can kick that machine’s butt for computing power and the USB drive that came free with my son’s Sims 3 game has more storage. We wrote “programs” with lots of “if…then” statements to cause that big machine to do magical things like spit out the square root of the numbers we fed it.

A mere two years later, my younger brother took a computer class. The new computer lab was filled with early Apple computers and had things like word processing, spreadsheet, and database programs. We had truly made a huge leap forward. His class learned their skills in order to take data they gathered on the accessibility of town building and turn it into a proposal that the town retrofit buildings to make them handicapped accessible. Not a square root in sight.

Why the trip down memory lane? Mostly to remind myself and others that both technology and its uses change quickly and it can be tough to keep up sometimes. As teachers learn more about the uses of the technology that is flooding into their classrooms, the way we work and the way we work together needs time to adjust.

When I started at my present (elementary) school, only 5 years ago, students had a “computer” class. The computer teacher taught each grade or class, 1st through 5th, for half the year. Classes were focused on keyboarding and using programs for word processing, spreadsheets, and graphics such as KidPix or Inspiration. The computer teachers would also do their best to trouble-shoot the other computers in the building, mostly PC’s of differing generations, but were limited by the need to have administrator authority in order to access settings or download updates.

Five years isn’t all that long. I know I haven’t gotten any older, I probably haven’t gotten much wiser, although I have, unfortunately, gotten a good deal wider. However, the life of our computer teachers, now called technology specialists, has changed greatly in some areas and not at all in others. They are expected to know a far wider range of applications, some of which pop up overnight, and support more technology both in the number of units and variety.

At the same time, they are pulled in opposite directions by administrators and classroom teachers. We still have a computer lab, but no more computer classes. All computer skills teaching must be embedded within academic subject content lessons. And our technology teachers still don’t have administrator privileges.

How do we find time to collaborate when one technology teacher covers the entire school?

How do we make sure our students learn to keyboard, create files and acquire other basic computer skills? (My students know how to Facebook, but not to type.)

How do we bridge the conflict between classroom and technology teachers that seems to pervade our discussions as the future comes at us faster than our school systems can adapt?

Everyday is a revolution.
Welcome to the future.

I’m in love with TED

No, no, not a guy named Ted, that would be wrong on so many levels.  I’m in love with TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design: Ideas Worth Spreading.

When my kids are home sick from school, they nap and watch TV.  When I’m home sick, I nap and watch TED videos.  The idea is to have as wide a variety of speakers as possible and let them speak for no more than 18 minutes each.  Some give shorter  talks that feel like drive-by lectures.  TED Talks fit perfectly with my love of learning a little something new outside of my field(s) of concentration and finding connections to what I already know.   These aren’t in-depth study opportunities, just a chance to brush up against something new that I wouldn’t have normally sought out.

While most of the talks would be above the heads of my fifth-graders, I can see sampling the topics on TED as a great way to help older students understand the breadth of topics, careers, and opportunities available to them in the world beyond the classroom walls.

There is so much to be learned, so many connections to be made, when we step outside of our little domains.  I’ve brought constructs and ideas into my classroom that I’ve learned from watching politicians, movie directors, and doctors.

This weekend I plan to watch live streaming of TEDxNYED, an independently organized off-shoot of TED, in hopes of viewing talks closer to my field of education.  It won’t be a sick day unless… yup… I’m starting to feel a little stuffy…

My love/hate relationship with my IWB

“Change is inevitable.  Growth is optional.”  I’ve seen that quote attributed to John C. Maxwell, but it may have originated elsewhere.

Change is certainly happening rapidly in our district, especially in the area of technology.  Our Superintendent was even named one of 10 “Tech-Savvy Superintendents” by E School News.  We have a new student information management system, cloud computing at our high school, administrators madly tweeting and blogging, and I no longer have computers with Windows 98 in my classroom, but a network CPU with four linked stations and an operating system from this century.

And then there’s the Interactive White Boards (IWB’s).  Six new IWB’s arrived this year to provide one per grade in addition to the wall-mounted integrated unit in the computer lab we received last year.  Pretty impressive for a school with only 23 homerooms.

I was ecstatic!  I’ve played around a bit with IWB’s already – in the computer lab and at sites where I’ve taught as an adjunct. I love using new technology and will wax poetic about my Kindle, how we can use my iPod Touch and Kodak Zi6, and my yearning for an iPad.  I text, I tweet, I Facebook.  I keep my family organized with Google Calendar and my news aggregated with Google Reader.  I bookmark on Delicious and highlight on Diigo.  I’ve created 3 websites and a wiki, and now, oy gevalt, I blog.  E School News may not name me a top 10 Tech-Savvy Educator but, for an old fart, I think I’m doing OK.

I immediately rearranged my room to make space for the new IWB and projector cart.  I purchased CD’s with lesson materials developed specifically for IWB’s, looked for online materials and lessons, and imagined a year of being able to quickly share the many applets, video clips, and other materials I’ve collected over the years in a rich and fluid learning environment.

So why am I less than thrilled with my IWB?  Because in the race to purchase as many units as possible for the money available, the everyday realities of elementary classrooms were overlooked.  Wanna bet that no one in our central office has ever had to set up and use a non-mounted IWB with a classroom full of elementary-aged students on a daily basis?

Let’s start with why I call the IWB “my” SmartBoard – note the quotes.  Nominally, it’s assigned to all four 5th grade classrooms.  But, given the space it takes up with the wide base (for stabilization, sort of) and the accompanying projector/computer cart, no one else is willing to give it a long-term home.  That same wide base means moving 4 tables and 18 chairs to get it out my door.  One of our 5th grade classrooms is on another floor.  Have fun making the two trips down in the elevator needed to get both the screen and the cart moved.  The screen will fit diagonally if you hold your breath.  Whoever says there’s no prayer in school has never watched the elevator door close just inches from the new IWB.

Then there’s the set up.  In the time it takes to move the work table off the rug, properly position the cart in front of the IWB, turn on the projector, reposition the cart because it wasn’t really properly positioned before, and plug the laptop into the projector and IWB, the classroom flow is interrupted.  We’re into “can I orient the board, please, please?”  There’s no spontaneous leaping on that teachable moment here, folks.  Forget that cool applet that would answer your student’s question on sound wave interaction and letting them experiment with different types of interference just because someone took the conversation beyond the “need to know.”  Plan ahead or don’t bother.  Better yet, grab a dry erase marker and use the old passive board.  It’s so great for demonstrating motion… not.

So, let’s say I use my lunch time to do all of the above set-up.  IWB base and projector cart wheels are locked into position and the board is oriented.  Two student contributions later, the board or projector will be out of alignment.  Those wheel locks are simply not up to 5th grade students’ bumping, writing, highlighting, or even pointing.  There’s not enough room on the rug, especially with the IWB taking up so much space, to prevent a child from leaning against or bumping the projector cart or screen.

Oh, and the shadows!  I’ve put the projector on every shelf of the cart, made platforms of various sizes and slopes, but as soon as one of us steps up to the board, a shadow falls on the areas where we want to highlight or write.  This leads to a lesson on how to stand to the side and s-t-r-e-t-c-h!  Righties use one side, lefties use the other.  Whereupon, one ends up grasping the board frame to keep from falling, putting the screen and projector out of alignment and making it impossible to mark the correct spot anyway.

I haven’t even addressed the fact that there has been no training.  Not an inconsequential factor, but perhaps one for another post.

I do “get it.”  I’m not as dumb as I look to my students and teenage children.  Movable IWB’s are cheaper than the integrated mounted models like the one in our computer lab.  Hence, the decision to purchase as many units of this model as possible and share what we have.  The problem is, they aren’t making it from room to room and aren’t even used as much as many of us would like in the rooms where they reside because of the work involved.  Those CD’s with cool interactive activities lasted two days because equipment issues meant I couldn’t let a small group use them without me while I ran a guided reading group.

New technology is great, but it has to take into account the realities of classroom life.  Sometimes, fewer of the right technology beats lots of the wrong.  Otherwise, we don’t have change or growth, just dusty IWB’s.

Twitter and PLN’s

“Anything that can be expressed in 140 or fewer characters is not a complete thought.”  This comment was made by a colleague this weekend in response to my kvelling over #edchat, an ongoing Twitter conversation devoted to education.

Normally, I might agree.  After all, you don’t have to know me long before you realize that I don’t use one word where I can use twenty.  Twitter might seem an uncomfortable fit.  However, I have found myself swept up in this streaming conversation with a swell of ideas and inspiration setting my mind reeling.

Tanya Roscoria has written a succinct explanation of why educators should create or join PLN’s (Personal Learning Network), so I won’t try and reinvent the wheel.  Instead, I’ll comment upon my own experience and what having a PLN, specifically connecting to the Educators’ PLN on Ning and #edchat on Twitter, have done for me in just the few short weeks since I’ve begun following them.

First of all, I should mention that my initial reason for checking out #edchat and the Educators’ PLN had little to do with personal or professional development but rather to be forewarned and perhaps forearmed regarding the “next big thing” to be visited upon our school district.  Our superintendent and high school principal, the driving forces behind most change in our district, are both active participants in their PLN and #edchat and, as union president and a classroom teacher, I figured I’d better find out what this was all about.

What I found was more than just a treasure trove of ideas and resources – in itself a pearl for an info-junkie and someone who would happily discuss educational philosophy and practice long into the night with any poor soul unlucky enough to be caught making eye contact with her – but inspiration, rejuvenation, and a sense of comradeship.  Post a question, a thought, a comment, and receive replies from other educators across the country and across the globe.  Links to blogs, applications, reviews and more are likely to be attached from people I’ve never met and from whom I would never have had the opportunity to learn had it not been for the networking possibilities of Twitter and other social/professional networks.  Sure, these sites are out there on the web, but what are the chances that I would have found them through traditional search methods?

It takes me hours to jot down, electronically or with the old #2 pencil I still love so much, the ideas starting to germinate in my mind.  Some ideas can be put into play immediately, some others may take more time, resources, or collaboration with my team to come to fruition.  Some will never be more than impassioned discussion during a grade-level meeting, but they all help to keep the spark within burning brightly.

Far more important than the accumulation of practical ideas has been the sense of common interest, shared passion, that one feels as the comments and ideas go scrolling past your eyes too quickly to absorb.  It is telling that by the time I can click on a tweet in order to reply, 5, 10, 15 more have come scrolling through, causing me to completely miss the target with my mouse.  There’s no waiting for polite one-at-a-time commenting.  I won’t call it a debate – the opinions tend to be too homogenous for that – but there is a diversity of ideas as to  how to achieve common goals such as involving teachers in their own evaluations, using technology to enhance classroom community, or encouraging passion in our students.  Everyone weighing in with their thoughts and resources, but mostly their passion for improving education for all of our students.  Some express frustration, others share stories of success, others play devil’s advocate, and still others simply offer their support.  I can’t help but come away after an hour of #edchat re-energized and believing in the future of education with so many impassioned educators dedicated to the cause.

I remember when I first left business to become a teacher.  As I started graduate school, I imagined discussions of educational philosophy and practice over lunch in the teachers’ room.  Lunch? What’s that?  The day-to-day reality is that we live and work in environments where the little prep time we have is a mad rush to prepare for the next lesson, correct and return papers, and deal with the innumerable bumps in the road that make up a teacher’s day.  A PLN, whether it is online, in the teachers’ room, or at the local watering hole, gives us that opportunity to reflect, encourage, support, and reinvigorate our selves and those around us, even when “around us” may include educators half-way around the globe.   Join a PLN or start your own.  The investment of a little time can reap great rewards.

Oh, and you can find me at

How I changed my mind about Twitter

A few short months ago, in the middle of a salary roll-back demand by the School Committee, a number of our newer members expressed anger that the union didn’t communicate more often with the membership.  I was shocked and more than a little hurt as I felt that as a new president I had made a point of communicating far more often than my predecessor.  Using our union local’s conference on First Class, I posted information throughout the year and after every meeting with the School Committee letting members know what had transpired.

“I teach full time!  What, do they think I’m going to send out daily posts with everything I’ve done for the union?  I’m not going to start Twittering for the union!”

As they say, never say never…

My perceptions of Twitter centered on self-absorbed people who felt the world needed to know what they were doing every minute of the day and to have everyone join them for coffee at the local Starbucks.  I saw the service essentially as a way to text all of your friends, as well as the world at large, in one fell swoop.  As a social networking tool, I saw social as the key element, and knew that no one really wanted to know that I was on my way to pick up the kids from robotics club.

And then, one day, Meg Secatore of the the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the state affiliate for our local, sent out an email asking which of the locals were using Twitter to communicate with their locals.  Darn, I was obviously way behind because everyone else was using Twitter for their locals and I was way behind.  Or so I thought.  I decided to dip my toe into the Twitter stream.

I set up my first account (yes, my first account)  with Twitter as MarcusBEA, keeping the username consistent with my union email.  In hindsight, I should have made it more generic to the local rather than myself.  Live and learn.  I used our First Class conference to announce the launching of our Twitter adventure and got a whopping one follower from among our 330-plus members.  I also placed a Twitter feed widget on our newly-established website, directing those members who indignantly exclaimed, “I’m not starting a Twitter account!” to access the information there.  Oh, and we were the first MA local to join Meg’s twittersphere!

My first real use came during mediation of our School Nurses’ contract.  I used Twitter to get the news out that we had a tentative agreement.  The one member who followed the stream directly and the others who checked the website knew within minutes.  I reminded those who felt the need to call or accost me in the hall as I prepared for work the next day that we had a communication vehicle to let them all know what was happening.

But that’s about all I felt Twitter could do for us: send out short text messages to a large group of people.

It wasn’t until I started following a few others, all union related at first, that I began to see the networking aspect of Twitter as the primary characteristic.  I receive information, tips, calls to action from the MTA, NEA Today, and state affiliates across the country.  Some are of interest to me personally, some would be of use or interest to my members at large, and some are interesting but not something I need or want to share with my members as part of my duties as local president.  I pass on those I feel we need to act on or that will generate discussion through “retweets” (RT).  Watching the stream, I find others who are worth following and the amount of information, number of resources, and ability to interact with others who have the same concerns grows exponentially.  Twitter has become a hub of information and resources.

Remember the old Faberge shampoo ads?  “I told two friends, and they told two friends…”  The difference, is that you aren’t just telling your friends, you’re getting feedback and then connecting with their “two friends” as well.  By following the streams of people I know personally, I discover other people to follow based on links that have been posted or their responses to those I follow.  Someone posted an article from the Mashable blog that was useful to me so I started following Mashable.  I now tweet Mashable links to others.

I now have a second Twitter account, PGRoom209, which I use for aggregating and disseminating tweets and links which have to do with teaching rather than union business.  Some folks follow MarcusBEA for the union news and others, I hope, will follow PGRoom209 for updates on my classroom.  But it’s not just about what I send out, it’s about what I can learn and how I can connect.  I follow Mashable, LizBDavis, EdTechToolkit and others for advice about how to integrate technology into our classroom.  By watching their streams, I pick up on others who I can follow or look to for advice.  I tweet articles, websites, and pictures from my RSS feeds, and my followers may choose to subscribe to those feeds as well or to comment.  Colleagues learn from what I pass along and then they pass it along to their followers.

I don’t tweet when I don’t have something to say or share.  I might go quiet for a day, a week, or even a good part of the summer, but I’m watching the stream and I’ll be in touch if I find something to share.  After all, I’m a teacher (and you can follow me on Twitter).

Hello world!

Here I am!

Yup, I’m entering the world of blogging and integrating Web 2.0 tools into my teaching and union work.

While I recognize that there might not be many folks interested in reading what I have to say as I travel this road, my hope is that my journaling will not only help me understand the journey but perhaps help others along the way.