Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thoughts on Professional Learning - Inspired by CodeEval & HackerRank

I came across CodeEval tonight and am kind of intrigued by the idea and how it could apply to education and professional learning. Essentially it is a free, gamified site where programmers can complete coding challenges, participate in developer competitions, and earn points while also helping employers find potential new hires based on their abilities and skill sets. Last year HackerRank launched a similar site to connect programmers and share code challenges and events. They now have over 150,000 members of the community and are getting ready to introduce HackerRankX (formerly Interviewstreet) this month as a way to bring together programmers and employers.

These sites provide value to varying stakeholders who have different interests in the service being provided. Companies have a better chance of finding candidates who demonstrate and possess the right skill set and caliber of knowledge. Applicants have the ability to showcase their skills and secure an interview based more on their work than on the appearance of a resume or how much education they have (knowledge over seat time kind of a deal). Perhaps even more interesting to me is the group of participants who use sites like this to learn and practice coding and contribute to a community of like-minded individuals in computer science.

What I'm wondering is if a similar platform could be used as a place to collect a variety of synchronous and asynchronous PD opportunities (communities and discussions, online courses, backchannels and event pages for F2F, etc) and provide badges and/or points for participation as well as collecting stats on someone's skills and PD. Educators could go to the site to find learning experiences that meet their needs in both content and delivery mode, could get "credit" for participating in any of the offerings, and could have a central location to keep track of the PD they've participated in as well as the skills and knowledge they have acquired. I also love the idea of this information being available to other educators so they could connect with and seek out colleagues and mentors who were knowledgeable in their areas of interest / need. I think this format would also allow for a great deal of user-created content and learning opportunities as well as sharing of information and resources openly so as to eliminate a lot of the re-creation that takes up valuable staff time.

Another valuable use I see is in connecting teachers within my district and maximizing the potential of existing PD. The amount of meaningful learning that seems to go on compared to the vast number of PD structures and hours spent is quite disparate in my mind. I would really like to see teachers engaging in learning that meets their needs by taking a close look at the current methods and shifting the thinking from a compliance, seat-time model to something more personalized. Lately I've been contemplating how to provide more opportunities for less site-specific PD that meets the individual needs of a teacher while still meeting the needs of a school. I think there are several places where PD could be more interest-based and connect educators around the district - widening the reach and building a greater community of valuable perspectives. For example, in Denver Public Schools there is a ProComp pay incentive for contracted teachers who participate in PDUs (Professional Development Units), but most of the time these teacher-directed courses are limited to several teachers from 1 school who form a PDU group. This of course can be valuable, but I think there are a lot of teachers yearning for opportunities to stretch their thinking outside the walls of their buildings and the colleagues they work with on a regular basis. I see a lot of value in a simplified way for teachers to list the PDU they are interested in facilitating or participating in, and connecting with teachers from around the district to do so. Connecting teachers at various schools would often necessitate a more asynchronous format, meaning course materials could be archived and used (or modified) for years to come by other educators interested in similar topics.

I love the idea of recognizing knowledge and growth over seat time and making the experience personalized so teachers are engaging in valuable learning, but there's still something missing for me when I think about using badging to do so. I'm not sure exactly what the missing piece is, and it is possible these feelings are due to not having fully thought through what it might look like.  Maybe I have been seeing badging as a (the?) singular method instead of one piece of a much larger puzzle? I do think we need a comprehensive approach to the different aspects of the professional learning process that meets a variety of needs and learning styles while still working from a centralized place so as not to over-complicate or frustrate users when looking for the opportunities to meet their needs.

CodeEval, and similar sites, excite me because they meet several different needs and serve a purpose for multiple user groups within one platform. I also like the guiding principles that seem to be present when offering a place for users to learn and grow while also providing them opportunities to advance professionally with employers who are interested in their specific skill sets. This type of model places a lot of power and choice in the hands of the professional to see where their strengths and weaknesses are and to seek out the learning they feel they need to be more competitive and effective. I continually wonder where we would be, and what direction we would be headed in, if teachers were given that same power. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Inquiring Minds Want to Know...and a Challenge to Act Upon

This morning my 3rd grade neighbor was in a meeting that was running late so she was not in her room when her students arrived. I invited her kiddos to join us, as is typical for either of us to do when the other needs coverage for a bit. We went through our morning meeting routine as usual and sang a couple extra songs together while we waited for her to arrive. (If you've never had 60 children packed together on the carpet smiling, singing, and giggling then you are missing out - it's a special kind of joy that can't help but fill your heart). To wrap up I asked the kids to think of 3 things they were looking forward to throughout the day and to share with someone nearby. Echoed around the room were exuberant voices: "Recess." "I'm looking forward to lunch because yay food!" "I'm excited for dance."

As I looked down I saw one of the 3rd graders sitting quietly and staring in the opposite direction of the other children. I can't help but smile whenever I see him, he is just one of those kiddos who I gravitate towards because even though we are not alike in many ways I also completely "get" him. "He is my people" as I often say about these quirky kiddos. He's the kind of student who I just want to follow throughout his years, partly to take under my wing and make sure he finds his place and his "people" and partly because I just can't wait to see what his future holds. I'm completely confident that this brilliant little red-headed boy is going to cure cancer or create some kind of ridiculous life-changing invention that I couldn't imagine if I wanted to.

Since he was surrounded by what probably felt like a thousand bodies and voices I decide to sit next to him and ask what he was looking forward to in his day. Instantly the cutest smirk came across his face. "I'm looking forward to Chromebooks." Now this wasn't surprising to me, or out of the ordinary. After all, just yesterday my kids and I were walking the 3rd graders through the whole process to reset their passwords and get logged in to the Chromebooks they'll share with 3 other classes. They are at the very beginning of what I call the "shiny new toy" stage, so many of the kids are dying to get their hands on the computers again. The true beauty came in the conversation that followed:

"Why are you looking forward to using your Chromebook today?"
"Because I have a computer at home and I like using the computer a LOT."
"So why do you think it is going to be so great to have a computer at school now?"
"Because the computer can help me learn things. Like I can look things up and I can find out new information."
"Well what kinds of things do you think you'll want to look up on your computer?"

"Does a Promethean Board screen freeze?"
"Does Pepsi have carbon dioxide?"
"Do Chromebook screens freeze?"
"What are the parts inside a Chromebook that make it work?"

These are some of the question that immediately poured out of this 3rd grader's mind. I could see his eyes darting around the room, fixing for just a moment on various objects before blurting out the thing he wondered and then immediately moving on to the next topic of his wonderings. I could practically see the gears spinning a mile a minute as he gathered 100 "How" and "Why" questions.

In that moment, as with so many moments in my classroom this year, my mind was passionately screaming. "YES! THIS is why we need technology in classrooms. THIS is the beauty and brilliance of putting knowledge at the fingertips of young, curious minds and letting them go crazy exploring and creating and finding 1 answer and 50 more questions." In those moments I am reminded that a student's voice is the absolute best data to show the positive impact of an initiative. You can send out surveys or look at scores and scores of academic data in all forms, but until you sit next to a student who can show and tell you about their journey you can never truly feel the impact it is having on their learning and their life. It's easy to forget the exact numbers or lose track of the correlation between this data set and that, but you'd be hard pressed to forget the look on a child's face when they discover something new or explain to you how they've taken charge of their learning. Technology is a tool, and it is no substitute for the guidance of a great teacher, but when you give classroom technology to a great teacher who has the right philosophy and mindset the possibilities are endless.

So today, and for many days to come, I pose a challenge to myself and to anyone else who is involved in an aspect of education: No matter how busy you may be or how many other "priorities" you may have, go sit next to a student. Ask them a question and talk to them about their experience as a learner. Every now and then make the time to hang out in a classroom and enjoy the quiet hum or chaotic buzz of learning. If you let go of everything else and allow yourself to be completely present I guarantee you will learn and feel something that can't be found behind the screen of your computer or within the confines of an office - and when needing to return to that aforementioned place you just may find some inspiration and motivation for the work you do each day. Even better, you may find the students help open your eyes to some new questions to ponder...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

I was going through my inbox today trying to unbury myself from about 150 unread emails and the tasks associated with them, and I came across this email from a former student. I don't often feel thankful for the ridiculous number of emails sitting in my inbox - bold, unread, and mocking me with all the to-do list tasks I can never get out from under. Today, though, I could not have been more thankful to see this one from October pop up in my life. I paste it here, unedited, as a reminder that for every lesson and song and idea we take the time to share with others it is reaching a student and making an impact on their life.

My 4th Grade Teacher
My 4th grade teacher is amazing her name is Ms.Raleigh she has been one of the greatest teachers that I’ve ever had. Ms.Raleigh has taught me so much in one year I can't think of a better person to learn with than her. But there are three things that I’ll never forget and those things are The Important Book, The Halloween costumes, and all the songs we learned.

In the first month of 4th grade we started a project based on the poem book The Important Book. All of the class made their own version of The Important Book. I remember the first time i ever wrote a book and that was in 4th grade. We did so much work in Ms.Raleigh’s 4th grade class. In my eyes The Important Book was the biggest writing piece I’ve ever done. The Important Book had so many steps and I wanted to give up but my 4th grade teacher kept me going. The Important Book was well a pretty Important part of my 4th grade experience.

In 4th grade in the school of KCAA we made these awesome halloween costumes. Since the logo of the school was a dragon we did a dragon. Instead of doing just 1 big costume or 30 small costumes we did a big costume made out of 30 kids in small costumes! In 4th grade we even inspired the principal to be grateful for all the participators and give them all popsicles  even though we didn't win I think we got the biggest prize of all learning to work together.

In 4th grade we learned so many songs we learned  ROYGBIV, Best Friend, Elements we even learned a rap song about Hot Cheetos and Takis to have a sneak attack on Ms. M’s 3rd grade class. I think my favorite part of learning all of those songs, is learning sign language for You’ve Got a Friend. We learned so many songs in Ms.Raleigh’s 4th grade class I hope the new 4th graders will learn that many too.

In Ms.Raleigh’s 4th grade class we had so much fun and laughed so much. It was a great year for me and all the other 29 students in her class. I couldn’t imagine any other 4th grade experience than the one i have had before. But those three things The Important Book, The Halloween Costumes, and finally all those songs we learned together i think that was the best year I’ve ever had in my entire life.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Pencil Metaphor

+Ben Wilkoff and +Catherine Beck recently spurred some good conversations on G+ by posting The Pencil Metaphor, and as I started to reply to the thread I realized my thoughts warranted a post of their own.

Many times I find myself to be an enthusiastic consumer of these kinds of things, often feeling drawn to a certain metaphor or relating in some way to the content presented. I've looked at, and thought about, The Pencil Metaphor several times in the past few days and have been trying to put my finger on what about it makes me uneasy.

While I can completely see how this metaphor speaks to a lot of people I struggle with the idea that we can so easily lump everyone into these categories without addressing the situations they live and work in. This metaphor, and others like it, are focused on the behavior without addressing the reason an educator might be acting this way. To me these categories read as though the behaviors are intentional choices educators are making and that anyone could fairly easily move to being "The Leaders" or "The Sharp Ones" if they really wanted to.

Let me explain what I mean, but from the perspective of students in a classroom. When a student engages in a negative behavior the first thing I wonder is, "Why?" Is the student hungry, is something going on in their personal life, have they been treated a certain way at home or school for several years that has contributed to them reacting this way? If I want to truly help the student transform and set them up to succeed I have to understand their entire picture and not make assumptions about the behavior or the reasoning behind it. I also have to make sure to set reasonable expectations, knowing that their best in that moment will look different than another student. My students learn very quickly that fair is not always equal, and that the successes we celebrate look different for each individual learner in our community.

I think we sometimes forget that, like the students in our classrooms, teachers come from a wide range of situations and ability levels as well. After just a couple years in the classroom so many teachers become exhausted and even demoralized by the constant influx of initiatives, new curricula and programming, testing, and other school, district, and state mandates. When you add in the myriad of other challenges facing teachers it makes sense that many of them have to build coping mechanisms so they can endure year after year. Is it any wonder, then, that a veteran teacher is skeptical or reluctant at the "next big thing" when they have seen who-knows-how-many come and go in their career? I also wonder how many times "The Wood" or "The Ferrules" have jumped on board with an initiative and given their extra time and energy to it, only to see it fall by the wayside and be replaced by the next new, latest and greatest magic bullet. At some point these teachers get tired of giving so many extra unpaid hours and expending energy, often at the detriment of their personal well-being.

This isn't to say there aren't any number of educators of all experience levels and situations who typify these categories, and I am certainly not trying to make excuses for teachers who are unwilling to do what is in the best interest of students, but I can't help but wonder, "Why?" What are the things causing them to act, or react, a certain way and what can we do to help them? It is important to look at the "innovators" and "early adopters" to see how they have been successful, but in my opinion it is equally important to look at the more reluctant or resistant teachers and to closely examine the factors contributing to their behaviors. How many of them are products of their situations? Teaching in the best of circumstances is a challenging career, and teaching in difficult circumstances can make each day feel like an impossible battle you are just trying to survive. Do some people take a lack of funding and find technology for their students anyway? Do others find ways to try new things and push the boundaries of what seems possible in the face of immense challenges? Absolutely. But I would also venture that many of these teachers are not in sustainable working situations where they will be able to thrive and feel fulfilled for 5, 10, 15 years in their classrooms.

So I suppose my thought is that instead of categorizing educators and labeling them as one thing or another we should instead be taking time to get to know them, to listen to their stories and to find out, "Why?" What are the things causing them to feel and react a certain way, and what can we do to set them up for success? How can we help change their situations, and the system as a whole, so teachers are equipped with the things they need to be successful and to feel willing to take on new challenges and innovations? How can we transform education into a sustainable career that honors the whole person so they can give their best to students day after day? I would say we start by keeping an optimistic mindset and asking them.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 - My Year in Songs

For a couple weeks I've been trying to decide how best to reflect on 2013 and I keep coming back to the songs that got me through the year. Music is always a huge part of my day. During my hour-long car ride to work I listen to music to get things started on the right track and help me think through whatever is on my mind or what I am trying to plan for the day. As soon as I walk into my classroom my computer gets turned on and Pandora is blaring as loud as I like (the perks of being in the building for a good 60 minutes before anyone else). Every day my kids and I sing 1 or 2 songs during morning meeting, and we often sing other songs throughout the day or have music playing in the background as we work. Of course I end the day the same way it starts. Music to calm me, to keep me awake in traffic, or to help me get out whatever feelings I might need to unload from the day. I often find certain songs become a bit of an anthem or theme song for the things going on in my world, certain lyrics speaking to my situation or bringing me whatever I may need in those moments to process my thoughts and feelings. Music is an integral part of my classroom and my life, so it seemed fitting that I share some of the songs that made frequent appearances in 2013. (Thanks to my Shazam tags I was able to recall the songs I would have otherwise missed and to take a musical journey back through my year. I'm even being brave and keeping a couple of guilty pleasure songs in the list.)

There's a fork in the road in front of me,
At the crossroads of identity.
The Devil is standing to the left.
He says "Either way, they both lead to death."

And the high road's steady and steep,
And the low road's easy and deep.
Guess I'll follow, follow, follow my feet.
Guess I'll follow, follow, follow my feet.

I have a friend who loves humanity,
Braves bullets in war-torn countries.
He traded a life of wealth to help the poor and ill.
He says "If I don't do it, nobody will."

I don't know where,
I don't know where,
Where my path will lead, but I'll follow my feet and 
my beliefs will keep me on the ground and I'll keep walking to the sound

Hello my old heart
How have you been?
How is it being locked away?
Don't you worry, in there you're safe
And it's true, you'll never beat, but you'll never break

Nothing lasts forever
Some things aren't meant to be
But you'll never find the answers till you set your old heart free
Till you set your old heart free

Come on skinny love just last the year
Pour a little salt we were never here
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my
Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer

And I told you to be patient
And I told you to be fine
And I told you to be balanced
And I told you to be kind
And in the morning I'll be with you
But it will be a different kind
And I'll be holding all the tickets 
And you'll be owning all the fines

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
You've been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

Feeling my way through the darkness

Guided by a beating heart
I can't tell where the journey will end
But I know where it starts

They tell me I'm too young to understand
They say I'm caught up in a dream
Well life will pass me by if I don't open up my eyes
Well that's fine by me

So wake me up when it's all over
When I'm wiser and I'm older
All this time I was finding myself
And I didn't know I was lost

I tried carrying the weight of the world
But I only have two hands


Well you can tell everyone I'm a down disgrace 

Drag my name all over the place. 
I don't care anymore. 
You can tell everybody 'bout the state I'm in 
You won't catch me crying 'cause I just can't win
I don't care anymore I don't care anymore 

I don't care what you say 
I don't play the same games you play. 

'Cause I've been talking to the people that you call your friends 
And it seems to me there's a means to and end. 
They don't care anymore. 
And as for me I can sit here and bide my time 
I got nothing to lose if I speak my mind. 
I don't care anymore I don't care no more 

I don't care what you say 
We never played by the same rules anyway. 

I won't be there anymore 
Get out of my way 
Let me by 
I got better things to do with my time 
I don't care anymore I don't care anymore 
I don't care anymore I don't care anymore 

'Cause I remember all the times I tried so hard 
And you laughed in my face 'cause you held all the cards
I don't care anymore. 
And I really ain't bothered what you think of me 
'Cause all I want of you is just a let me be. 
I don't care anymore d'you hear? I don't care no more 

But you only need the light when it's burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go
Only know you've been high when you're feeling low
Only hate the road when you're missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go