Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In Defense of Today

Today we spend a great deal of time talking about what’s needed for tomorrow. For as much as we proclaim “carpe diem”, we frequently miss the moments of now, especially in interacting with our students.

When I was a young mom, nap times were precious moments of the day because they were the few minutes I could spend being productive. One day, when my daughter was a few months old, I caught myself wishing away the playful waking moments with her in anticipation of the next window of time I could get to work on my to-do list. I remember with pristine clarity the realization that I was wishing away the most precious time, an obvious conclusion but nonetheless an epiphany of sorts that day.

I thought of this moment after hearing several times today and over the last week echos of the same sentiment with respect to student preparation in life. Elementary school teachers are worried about preparing students for middle school, and middle school teachers worried about preparing students for high school. Why do we give so much homework and enforce an unforgiving calendar of due dates for high school students? To prepare them for college of course. In fact, we are preparing students for the whole 21st Century lest they be lost in the amorphous demands of the future “work force”!

Admittedly,  it is critical to prepare our students for their futures, but are we willing to sacrifice today’s victory in the name of preparation? I can’t count how many variations of this statement I have heard from teachers: “They can’t (insert prepare longer for a test, turn in an assignment late, have optional homework) because they won’t be able to handle it when it really gets tough in (insert middle/high school, college, etc).” This argument is fallacious for several reasons, the first of which is developmental. If students are in high school, they are not in college yet. They do not have the same skill set, maturity level, flexible schedule, etc. as a college student. Moreover, it’s not even a true statement. We all know that leniency and workload of any class varies per teacher, and further, that as adults we are rarely placed in a comparably inflexible environment as most traditional schools, at least not at the highest professional levels to which we hope our students aspire. 

But, I digress. I don’t really have an issue with tomorrow’s preparation until it encroaches on today’s success. And by success, I mean the ability of a child to recognize value in a learning exchange and seize it, to recognize his or her own talent and capitalize on it, and to realize they have their teacher on their side. These are the successes that ultimately build our future successes. Even in our work lives, we work harder when we feel connected to people and believe that our talents are maximizing our success. We want to do more of what we think we are good at and have the potential of being great at. If my only measure of being a decent writer was whether I may be able to write the “next American classic”, I would never pen a blog. Someone, at some point, liked only one sentence, one essay I wrote and it stuck. If a child is continuously inundated with messages about measuring up to the next level, when does he or she get to enjoy the comforts of now?

Although I missed tonight’s #edchat, I caught the archive on 21st century skills development, and my favorite post of the night was offered by @johntspencer who wrote, “I’m less interested in ‘21st century’ than timeless and enduring.” You know what is timeless and enduring? Connection, to others and to one’s own potential as they augment with time. At the risk of sounding hopelessly Kumbaya, I will end with my daily source of inspiration when I feel daunted by tomorrow’s demands. There is a wonderful song by the Dave Matthews Band called “Everyday”, the lyrics of which serve as the right call to action with my students each day. “Pick me up, oh, from the bottom; Up to the top, love, everyday.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

When Technology Fails and We Succeed

I have come to realize that learning about new technologies and using them are two different things. Since my last post, I have experienced a couple learn-by-doing moments that I feel would be helpful to share.

On our Facebook Faculty Group Wall, a teacher friend shared yesterday’s NY Times article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  which developed into a discussion thread of unanimous agreement. In the spirit of that, let’s talk about my wonderful failures of the past couple weeks. In an attempt to have a live discussion, I set up both a faculty meeting, and subsequently a class presentation, through vyew.com. I have the free version of service, but I was hoping to lead a discussion very similar to those I have experienced through Blackboard or Illuminate...sans the cost. I guess you get what you pay for in this case because while I was able to load the presentations successfully for both meetings, some of my staff members had a hard time accessing the meeting room and talking/listening became a problem. Nevertheless, I thought I had figured out the user errors on my part and how to better run it when I presented a lesson with my students.

I suppose it would be an accurate statement to say that the lesson proved relatively chaotic and ultimately ineffective as a whole-group activity. I cannot attribute this to the software because I am sure that somewhere in the product description of “free service” it indicates that there is a limit on how many attendees can enter a room, but what transpired was in retrospect rather comical in a way. I loaded a simple power point on outlining for my composition class and invited the students into the room. They got in; great success! Except that as the number exceeded 10, the kids already in the room lost their space, getting booted out. It did take us a good ten minutes to figure this out, and naturally, it was the students who put the variables together...kids are so brilliant.

Aside from minor setbacks of lost time and the necessity of assuaging any student and parent frustrations resulting from the confusing class session, this failure generated much growth. I conferenced individually with the students, who still did view the presentation and successfully complete the outline in spite of the failed meeting. My students, despite some being convinced they could not succeed in this type of environment, all rose to the problem-solving challenge and collaborated to answer questions from those who could not comprehend the task solely based on the presentation. It was messy, but the work produced then and subsequently has been impressive. This experience also taught me an important thing about the online environment: whole class instruction is exactly contrary to the beauty of the open flow classroom. The flipped model combined with the ability to deliver instruction on an individual student level when they are ready to receive it is actually attainable in this structure because it is forced. I have also realized that I can effectively use small group conferencing through Vyew which seems to do well when there are not too many competing voices in the room. Instead of trying to lecture to the students all at once, if I have something to say, or just want to show them the Hudson River, I post a video for them like this one.

My second failure was small and impacted only myself but worth sharing. There have been multiple mentions of Glogster and QR Codes in recent blogs and conference presentations, so I thought I would put together a project where students created multimedia Glogs to share various elements of our school’s history and its programs, which could then be linked to QR Codes to put up around the school for families to scan during admission tours and to give out at community events for those interested in learning about our school. I spend more than a few hours creating a sample Glog and screencast for my students only to link the QR code, scan it with my iPhone...and bring up NOTHING! Admittedly, I should have realized beforehand that this would be a problem, and it might have registered just a split second before the loading of the page failed, but in the end, the Adobe/Apple stalemate imploded my project. And yet, from this emerged some new collaboration through Twitter from fellow teachers who introduced me to webdoc.com which does not run on Flash. My students took to it right away, so quickly in fact, that they never really watched the presentation on it and nevertheless finished, in some cases, days before the project was due. Check out this one on our Dance Program.

I cannot say for certain whether I wish the conference had gone smoothly or that my QR/Glog mash-up project had mashed harmoniously because I really do believe the hackneyed-but-not-too-often-practiced sentiment that failure is not only acceptable but critical to our success. It truly depends on what is at stake and the nature of the failure. The only inexcusable failure, in this case, would have been a student feeling completely disconnected or incapable of success. As it stands at the end of the project, all my students and I learned more through navigating our obstacles in order to still reach a summit together. Nothing was lost...not even time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Our School (Grandview) + Bucky Dent Baseball Academy in the news!

News Channel 5 Covers The Partnership

In this interview, Gil expresses his gratitude for having Grandview as an academic partner for some of Bucky Dent's rising baseball stars. We are equally grateful to have such wonderful kids in our classes! Though the boys were selected for the Academy because of their baseball talents, it seems that the Bucky Dent crew was also scouting for character. Even though they can't play baseball for Grandview, they are certainly part of the GPS team, and we will be cheering them on to their many successes in the classroom and on the field!

Facebook Meets Face-to-Face, Week 1

This summer, we made a decision not simply to open social media sites like Facebook and Twitter but to essentially hijack them as learning spaces. Because this is such a hot topic, I've decided to chronical it as the year goes on in a weekly blog entitled "Facebook Meets Face-to-Face". Here's a look into the first week of school at Grandview!

Setting Up: We set boundaries to limit FB use to upper school students in order to be ethically compliant with age requirements. We are also looking to use Google+, especially for hangouts in our blended learning classes (called Flex classes), but when school opened, the age requirement was 18. Now that it is 13, we will look to use this as students settle into a groove. We've learned that too much, too fast can be overwhelming, and our students are still trying to get comfy in the new spaces. We set up Facebook pages for many of our high school classes using the Groups feature. This feature allows for collaboration between people who are not Facebook "friends", something which was key to us as our teachers are not "friends" with our students. Instead of Facebook or Google+, we are using Edmodo for middle school and lower school. Because I teach one middle and one upper school class, I use both as a teacher, and each has its advantages/disadvantages. We also set up Collaborize Classroom and Edublogs depending on the blogging needs to accompany the interaction on Facebook and Edmodo. Some classes are also using Glogster.

Tech Boot Camp: Last year, when we implemented Google Apps, we set aside one day as Academic Boot Camp to train the students on the use of these tools. This year, in addition to more training on these tools, the students attended workshops on responsible use of social media and collaborated in drafting responsible use agreements. They set up their Edmodo accounts, Collaborize Classroom accounts, and joined the appropriate Facebook groups.

Flex Class Flow: Our first flex classes met last week. These classes are blended face-to-face and online classes for seniors. Students are expected to attend on seminar and workshop days in person but can work at their own pace and attend online chats from home on other days, coming into school a little later on those days to attend their traditional classes. On average, the classes are meeting once or twice face-to-face or through video chat (in my case since I live in New York and my students are in Florida). Facebook has proven incredibly helpful in these classes because the teachers can post the assignments for the day or links. I create a video for my students on flex days and then also post the necessary explanations below it. One other teacher (Sam Berey) and I are using this model and both jump online to help students through video chat, IM, and FB chat if they run into issues. Students can choose to come into campus and work in a lab space for additional support.

Lessons Learned Week 1: My week taught me that students are not used to reading directions, something I knew, but my assumption was that if they could not ask questions face-to-face, they would read the directions. This was a false assumption, and instead, many students just asked each other and remained collectively confused. Or, they scrambled online to ask for clarification through chat or video conference before reading the assignment. Next year, I will spend some time in the beginning of the year practicing taking written information, processing it, and turning it into pointed questions for further guidance. On a positive note, this platform is really forcing students to learn the 21st century skill sets of communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. There is a lot of learning through action. I've also realized that I need to give shorter assignments and only one at a time. At first, I was giving a list of tasks, and this proved confusing and overwhelming for my students.

Looking Ahead: I am so excited for this year! I have to say that one thing I have noticed right away is a rise in connectivity to my classes and throughout the school. The downside is setting boundaries so that students don't always expect an immediate response, but the upside is we can see students sharing and communicating about important topics way beyond the classroom walls. Further, many kids who are normally on the fringe of participation or disengaged feel more comfortable or excited about participating online.