Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blended Learning - An Essential Bridge

My blog has been silent recently, but there's a good reason. I've gone back to school...so instead of spending the extra minutes of the day reflecting and writing here, I've spent them engaged in new learning. As a lover of learning, I am in heaven despite the long hours! I've managed to find a program that simultaneously marries my background as a school leader with my passion for technology leadership, and one that has provided new, expansive paths of learning ahead for me.

Beyond this, however, the program (an Executive Masters in Tech Management through Columbia University) has provided me with the ideal environment for this point in my learning. It has reaffirmed both my strong belief in blended learning and has helped me to develop skilled beyond the content of the courses through this model. As a school leader, it was important for me to find a program with flexible working hours. The structure of this program, primarily online with residency weeks of full days in session, allowed me to attend classes from anywhere and to consume content at any time.

More than being conducive to my scheduling needs, however, the program delivered a new iteration of blended learning since 2008 when I completed my Ed Leadership MS. Before we were even face-to-face, my cohort members were placed into teams and provided a very challenging case in our finance class. Our team had to draft a contract delineating our commitments, expectations, and strengths/roles we would like to play in the group. We then dove head first into the assignment, figuring out workflow, meeting times, and communication/work tools. Through Google hangout calls, we accomplished more than an A on the case as we grew to be friends even before we had class together. By the end of the semester, we had formed strong connections via the online interactions and had far exceeded our targets in the class.

As a passionate blended learning educator, I found this experience thrilling. Yet, it has also reaffirmed my strong conviction that we must take the opportunities we have to build the bridge for student success by introducing them to blended learning models along their educational journey. Though more schools are looking at blended learning models to enhance their curriculum, building this bridge requires a focus on models that develop the following skills in students:

  • the ability to assimilate new learning material provided digitally 
  • a resourceful mindset in finding solutions to aid in comprehension of difficult material 
  • the ability to foster rapport across digital platforms and engage in social learning
  • independence and initiative to driving one's learning 
  • discipline in pacing oneself 
  • the ability to establish group workflow and synergy via digital communication
In order to achieve the aforementioned skills, we must look to blended models which go beyond supplemental practice to instead provide the core instructional experience. Students able to experience learning in a digital environment will emerge not only as stronger students but also as those positions to exhibit strength in the work place.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stop, Disconnect, & Listen

Admittedly, I stole this title from a great post by Barry Saide and Christopher Bronke, “Stop, Collaborate, and Listen” who, of course, borrowed the title from Vanilla Ice. While the article for ASCD highlighted the fun and passion ignited through connection, often via conferences and social media, when it arrived in my inbox while I was on vacation, I was less than inspired by the sentiments. It led me to ponder why I felt this way, since being a connected educator is something I am very passionate about. My mornings are typically greeted by coffee over my Feedly stream, followed by checking out my Buffer suggestions and my favorite Twitter groups.

I’ve never been one who needed a full stop vacation. Rather, I typically fill vacations with work at the beach, fitness, attempting not to fall off mountains, and reading. I’m not alone in engaging in the fake break. Over summer, the call to learning is prolific across PLNs, transforming traditional R & R into Reflection & Reading...with a generous dash of tinkering and tweeting on the side. In fact, if we are not using our downtime for workshops and Twitter chats, we feel almost - dare I suggest - lazy. It is presumptuous to assume this is a shared feeling, but based on the neurotic streams of information, I can’t imagine I am alone in the frenzy.

So for the past few days, which I had the chance to spend in solitude at the beach, I took a different approach. With work deadlines to be met, I could not realistically shut it down completely, but I decided to turn the waterfall into a trickle. I allocated work time to accomplish my must-dos but disconnected from many of my feeds, only checking Feedly for morning reading on one day. I chose the sounds of nature over music and a fiction read over the titles on my professional development shelf. I ignored reading recommendations from friends (sorry!) and “pocketed” them for later...maybe.

Here’s what I noticed, aside from the stunning sounds and sights of nature. The pace slowed, my stress fell, and I felt cleaner. I know it’s a strange description, but it felt like disconnecting purged frenetic pollutants from my system. When these things exited, other things flowed in. Ideas mainly, and lots of them. They are not the ideas of others shared on my media streams, though I’m certain they are not completely original, but they did originate in my mind.

The downside is, I still feel I missed a lot while absent, though the reality is we miss the majority even while present (jumping into a Twitter stream is like standing under the waterfall and thinking you can drink all the water). Another downside is I’m not sure I have a clear sense of what actions I’m going to take to make room for disconnection in my life. But, I am committed to the idea, and when I figure out my strategy, I will share it...via social media, of course, where there surely already exists a deluge of top tips on disconnecting from your tech.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Road to Digital Independence: 5 Tips to Cultivate Independence in #DigitalNatives

image credit: freeallimages.com
In America, Independence Day means celebrating our freedom through the time-honored sharing of hotdogs and burgers on the grill. To paraphrase a sentiment from Warren Buffett, we are sitting in the shade of freedom today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. The right to be individual and independent, to have agency over action and belief, has been part of our cultural DNA from the inception of our nation. As instinctual as it is, however, it must also be cultivated with intention and purpose within our children. This is especially true in the digital world where freedom thrives but also threatens.
In honor of Independency Day, here are five tips we as parents and educators can employ to help children along the path to digital independence.
#1: Model
From the earliest of ages, our children can learn from us about the digital world and our collective responsibility within it. Just as we model waiting for the “walking man” to safely cross the street, we should model online safety and awareness practices. The opportunities to also model activism, connected work ethic, and learning thrive with digital tools. Watching TED videos together (there are several by incredibly innovative children) and using social media to connect and collaborate allow our children to observe the most purposeful and powerful benefits of the digital world.
image credit: tynker.com
#2: Learn the Language
To be truly independent within any culture, knowledge of the common language is essential. Though most of us learned to navigate the digital world within knowledge of code, today it is possible to empower children with a creative voice not just using digital tools but creating them through code. Tools like Tynker, Khan Academy, and Scratch provide coding environments for children to learn the language of programming. These kid-friendly environments cultivate independence in its rawest form--creation.

#3: Create & Innovate

To create is to bring individual thought to existence. Creative energy flourishes in children, especially at a young age when the conventions of the world have not put boundaries on untamed ideas. By using digital tools to create music, film, design, art, choreography, and writing, children are embedded with a maker, rather than consumer, mindset for the use of digital media.
image credit: explorerdad.com
#4: Explore
Our children may be digital natives, but just as one born native to New York City is a native to it, we would not expect that child to instinctively understand how to safely navigate the city independently. Such learning takes place over time, from “walking man” to independent subway navigation and street awareness. Just as we start giving children boundaries of safe independent neighborhood navigation, we too must establish these safe exploration boundaries online. Outlining where, when, and with whom it is safe and productive to travel online is an essential prerequisite to independent exploration. As children age, we broaden the landscape of independent travel but remain connected with them.
#5: Teach and Model Balance
To speak of online independence without balance of offline agency would be remiss. Too often, children explore the digital world without a healthy balance and thereby establish an unhealthy reliance on the digital world for meaning, voice, and independence. Where they have them online, they may suffer offline. We bear the onus of establishing balance through boundaries and exposure to offline tools which similarly cultivate independence. Taking children to maker events, empowering them with the tools to create offline and explore the “real world” with us are as, if not more important, as the digital world becomes more and more integral to our lives.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Teach Fit Tip: Teaching with Joy

image credit: sarahjanestudios.com
I watched an Ironman competition on TV a few years back. Even more than I was astounded by the fitness endurance of these strong competitors, I was dazzled by one athlete’s smile: that of Chrissie Wellington, already a three time Ironman World Champion at the time of the event. What was so amazing to me wasn’t her smile (though it’s lovely, of course) but rather the endurance of her smile to match the endurance of her physical feats. Through every rotation on the bike and every step along the run, Chrissie was smiling.

I later read tips from Ms. Wellington as I prepared for my recent not-so-ironman triathlon. In this one, she provides an explanation for that ironman smile:

Performance tip #6: Have a mantra (or two): "I have some that I write on my water bottle and wristband when I race. One is 'smile,' and another is 'never give up.'"
So I set out to try the impossible: exercise while smiling. I’ll admit, like my medal count, my smiling endurance falls well short of Chrissie Wellington’s, but I did manage to smile often and even find a remarkable amount of joy in my fitness. And by joy in my fitness, I mean joy during, not after, my fitness.

To me, this has become the central most important mantra in my life: smile and find the joy in every moment. It’s challenging, no doubt, especially when we are exhausted. The tendency to look ahead to the next rest point for relief or fun is not unique to fitness, teaching, parenting--or any number of other strenuous endeavors--but there is so much missed in doing so. The fact is we spend much more time exerting ourselves than taking breaks, and personally, I’d rather be happy during the majority of my time.

Beyond the personal impact of joy is the effect it has on our practice. Just as I run much faster when I am happy in the moment, so too do I teach more effectively when I am laughing, smiling, and enjoying my time with my students. Sometimes it seems there are many obstacles to finding this joy. The blisters which form in our practice, whether caused by testing, errant student behavior, parental frustrations, or lack of support, can make it nearly impossible to be happy in our classrooms in the moment of teaching. In these moments, however, there are two endless ways we can capture the joy in our practice. The first is a physical action--a smile. By taking a break to smile, we are conditioning a happier response. Smiling when we least want to or feel like it is exactly the action needed. The second is borrowing joy from students. Students are very joyful. In fact, their joy and silliness often causes ours to run away. However, instead of trying to suppress it or check it, I find it sometimes necessary to steal it, or rather, to allow it to spread to me as a source of energy.

There are several ways of bringing joy into the teaching practice, but I would venture to say that without it, there can be no teaching. Teaching happens through relationships. Joy is among the few prerequisite conductors through which learning transmits from teacher to student.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Teach Fit Tip: Teaching with Flexibility

April Blogging Series: Teach Fit, the "cross-fit" between my two worlds (fitness & education) in exploration of how fitness has more to do with teaching than we might think.

Teach Fit Tip #2: Teach with Flexibility

image credit: feelhotyoga.co.uk
When we exercise, we build strength by taxing our muscles and forcing them to grow. Tiny ruptures in the muscles occur when we have upped our fitness and forced our body to adapt. The medical term for that Oh my god, I can't lift my arms to wash my hair feeling after a great workout is delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. It's a normal part of fitness but can have detrimental results such as tightness and poor posture if we don't balance our strength training with some stretching and flexibility training. By engaging in yoga and other forms of flexibility, we not only ensure our fitness leads to healthy growth over time, but we also bring balance to our practice.

Core Training
As teachers, we face much that is rigid and inflexible. These things cause us pain sometimes, but they are not necessarily the evils of education we make them out to be. The problem is, we don't necessarily have the right flexibility training in place to balance their impact on our practice. Here are three rigid-Ed buzz words along with a flexible practice teachers can use to counterbalance them.

1. rigor: a (1) :  harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible (Merriam-Webster)

Rigor must be among the least accurate words used ad nauseam to describe quality education. It's unfortunate because it translates to piling up the mental exercises so excessively as to remove any ounce of free time students might have after school. While a rigorous program may prepare students to be even more competitive and accountable in life, it can also be emotionally exhausting in its unforgiving magnification of inevitable mistakes.

Flexibility Exercise: Rapport building can counteract today's rigorous atmosphere of competition. While there is no escaping the high stakes and high stress, teachers can serve as voices of reason instead of contributing to the madness. Skilled teachers can also complement high expectations with high support and genuine care. They also have a way of lifting students up in moments of crisis.    

2. standard :  something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality (Merriam-Webster)

Standards-based grading, standards-based learning, standards-based assessment...clearly standards are at the "common core" of our daily practice. Standards are valuable because they serve as a musculature of learning design. However, what we allow students to do with those muscles can be far more flexible.

Flexibility Exercise: Choice-based learning is like a yoga practice with many modifications in play. Anyone who has taken a yoga class can attest to the instructions being given in tiers for almost every move and the fact that in many classes individuals choose to veer into their own practice for chunks of class. I do this when we go into plow or headstand. I just don't like the idea of putting pressure on my neck, so instead I move over to the wall and do a handstand. I'm still upside down, so I get the benefits of that portion of practice, but I accomplish this in my own style. In our classes, we have several opportunities to allow students to make modifications on their own through choices along the way. The standards keep us generally in "flow" together, but allowing for variations in content based on interests or self-assessment, process based on preferred learning style, and outcome based on creative disposition, is an excellent way to allow students agency over their learning practice.

3. schedule : a plan of things that will be done and the times when they will be done (Merriam-Webster)

Schedules are necessary for school safety and learning, yet even the most progressive bell schedules still constrain us in our attempts to maximize exploration and foster deep understanding. 

Flexibility Exercise: Open up time and space by creating blended learning opportunities. Using a platforms like Schoology and Google Apps for Education, learning via collaboration can extend far beyond the allocated time and space. This practice also creates diversity in learning space where one may attract a learner who feels intimidated by a more traditional space.  

Cool Down (Stretch!)
In the early years of our teaching careers, we are nimble with optimism and energy for our practice, but these perspectives can become jaded and worn over time if we are not careful just as we become tight and achy as we age! But there's a solution to this. When we are presented with inevitable soreness of our practice, whether in the class or on the track, we can rejuvenate through a dedication to flexibility training. #teachfit  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Teaching With an Adventurous Spirit

As much I flooded my blog with shameless bragging over my preparations for and "reasons" to, it was hard to miss that I was in a triathlon race this weekend. When it was over, my 28 days of race blogging also came to an end, and I was left thinking about the connections between two central pieces of my identity: fitness and education. I feel strongly that one informs the other constantly, so I set out to explore these connections a bit as I bring my readers and self back over the conceptual bridge.

One synapse through which energy flows between all the facets of my personal and professional life is adventure. When I think of adventure, my heart returns to my childhood favorite The Goonies, in which an eclectic crew of well-intentioned, ill-prepared teens sets off to find the hidden pirate treasure that will "save the Goondocks" from foreclosure. With no forethought, the group hops on their bicycles with nothing more than an old map and key, an asthma inhaler, and a ton of brash courage. Along the way, they find friendship, purpose, compassion, inner talent, and (of course) the treasure.

While it would be hardly responsible to send students off to impending doom by booby trap, it seems today that too many teachers are fearful of teaching with an adventurous spirit. As I stood in front of the waves on Sunday's race day, it was not without a fair amount of trepidation, but I also felt sure that I could at least survive and succeed given my level of preparation. In an age of so many creative and collaborative possibilities, educators would benefit from confidence in their abilities in order to dive into an adventurous sea. When facing something new or unexpected, we need to remember that we have arrived on this shoreline of possibility with no trivial amount of preparation. Unlike our beloved Goonies, we have far more in our packs to help us avoid danger and find the learning treasures with our students. Here are five adventurous seas most teachers face and should feel confident diving into...

1) Tech Integration: Beyond checking age-appropriate guidelines for platform use, which are clearly outlined in the user terms, the integration of technology, especially that which has been specifically designed for the classroom, is a safe sea. While there will be waves to contend with, nobody is going to drown. Allowing students to play around in the surf and share with each other how they used different techniques to arrive at the same task completion is a great practice.

2) Project-Based Learning: The best projects are often the most open-ended ones. It's uncomfortable for teachers to set forth projects with vague rubrics, but students can benefit from ones that set high standards for creativity, collaboration, and quality, with very little else detailed.

3) Choice-Based Exploration: As long as the prerequisite standards have been set so that students know how they must show they have learned, allowing students to choose what they learn and design their own demonstrations of learning is an excellent way to foster agency and creativity.

4) Unfamiliar Topic: In today's data age, information is as easy to come by asking Siri. What is far more difficult to find is guidance, rapport, and connection. Allowing for student choice sometimes means allowing for topics outside our expertise. That's okay though because teachers are adept at the latter skills so as to guide students to the best resources and connections. We are boosters of brain power and creative, critical thinking...not databases for facts. Think Socrates--he never answered any questions!

5) Being Ourselves: This is a personal and sometimes polarizing topic. Teachers cannot and should not try to be separate people in class and outside of school. While it would be unprofessional to over share information about one's personal life, our families and our interests make us human and relatable. These are two qualities a computer can never be. Yet, teachers are understandably fearful of sharing about their family if they feel the environment is intolerant. A moving example is Chris Friend's Edutopia blog "Silence is not Golden" in which Chris explores his missed opportunity in helping students embrace their own identities and differences. "Because I never brought up my sexuality on campus, I continued the discrimination. By hiding, I silently expressed my fear and added to the problem I feebly wanted to protect students from. I was trying to make sure that students felt safe in my classroom. Instead, I showed them that even I was not." 

There is no shortage of fear in teaching. Sometimes we fear for ourselves, but mostly we fear the impact our mistakes will have on our students. We feel the weight of each interaction because we know that there are no neutral moments or do-overs. Still, with safe boundaries for exploration, we can trust in our skills as educators when faced with some trepidation. Our adventurous spirits can inspire our students to learn at new heights if we provision our packs with trust, creativity, and strong rapport.