Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Let’s Ditch “Rigor” for Excellence

There is a great deal of positive energy abuzz in the education community. For all its needed reform, there is talent and creativity galore. There is professionalism, unified in purpose and diverse in solution. And there is excellence on the universal horizon of the future, a shared destination.

But there is also a wayward universal regard for this word “rigor” which could derail our path to excellence and ground our standards in cement. In “Making Sure They Are Learning”, a video posted this week on Edutopia’s social media feed, teacher Sarah Kaufman is profiled for her use of Post-Its to authentically assess students “where they are”. The method is flexible, differentiated, creative, and yes, authentic. Students in the video are engaged, on different “pages”, at various points of skill development...all moving towards the same high standard. The word used to describe Sarah’s class was “rigorous,” but none of its remarkable qualities match up with any definition of that term...and it’s a good thing! As defined by Merriam-Webster:

Rig ✹ or:
a: (1) harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :severity (2): the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :strictness (3): severity of life: austerity b: an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
2: a tremor caused by a chill
3: a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially : extremity of cold
4: strict precision : exactness <logical rigor>

If we ask any educator whether the pinnacle of education would be inflexible, severe, or strict, I have to imagine (or at least hope) the answer would be a resounding No! If a parent came into our school and asked what we could provide for her child, I have to imagine (or again, hope) the answer sought would not be a severe, harsh, or cruel environment. Even the closest definition to our classroom application of the term, strict precision, implies no nimbleness of thought or action. Do we truly aspire to logical rigor?

But do not fret, word lovers! There is indeed a word, familiar to all, the definition of which would resonate as ideal to every educator, parent, or student.

Ex ✹ cel ✹ lence:
1: the quality of being excellent
2: an excellent or valuable quality : virtue

Words are powerful things. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.” Education is a process through which we aspire to help students shine. Let’s pick a shinier word to describe its ideal!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The ABCs of Establishing a PLN

There is much reward that comes with being a "connected educator" with a robust PLN (Professional Learning Network). It's a great way to unify within a large school while also connecting and learning with others outside its walls. A wider perspective is essentially the most valuable gift of a PLN, but when starting to build one, it's also important to keep the task in perspective so as not to become overwhelmed by too much, too fast. In thinking about what advice to give those who are beginning this journey as I did a couple years ago, I went back to basics with the ABCs.

Assess: Take some time to think about your own learning style and preferred modes of interaction. Yes, stepping outside your comfort zone is part of the experience, but starting someplace with a few familiar elements makes it more likely that the new environment will stick. Questions to ask: What will work for you? What social media platforms are you already on? Do you prefer pictures or text? Do you want to simply follow, interact, share, or collect? All of these will help you pick the right network space.

Balance: Think about what time can be allocated without feeling overwhelmed. I believe this is the most important step in the process. When we introduce a new form of connection through technology, we have to do so with moderation so that as we enrich our experience and network in the digital world, we still maintain the richness of interaction with people and nature in the other. Questions to ask: What time can I dedicate to interaction through social media? Is there something which can be replaced with this type of interaction? While the self-regulated boundaries are flexible, having an idea will keep you from feeling inadequate in the level of dedication to it and from overexerting your efforts in one area. 

Connect: Decide which social media platforms are best, and get connected. Aim for internal and at least one external. One of the best experiences for me has been school-based faculty Facebook groups which have allowed for celebration and resource sharing in a way which crosses divisions and subject areas. Because the groups can be set to private and friendship is not mandated by group membership, it's a great professional space. Having a connection to the outside is also critical as we tend to get a little tunnel-visioned without it. Questions to ask: What can I join that already exists or what can I help start? What are my interests? 

Here are a few suggestions for starting from the beginning:

Facebook: A Facebook group is like a faculty lounge and a page is like a FB friendship. It's a place to share on a wall wall, meet/greet, and celebrate. Here are a few groups with pages. Groups are set up privately.  
EdCampNYC (in several locations)

Pinterest: Like browsing shelves in a library & making your own copies of stuff you like. I mostly browse by topic but here are a few boards/people. 
Schools with rocking resources: W.T. White High & Cincinnati Waldorf School

Twitter: It's a bit like a frenetic networking meet & greet. There is an information stream mixed with conversation. I would recommend a tool like TweetGrid so you can view multiple hashtags on one screen. 

Other Great Sites