Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hanging in the Balance (My 2012 8th Grade Moving Up Address)

Today, I had the honor of addressing the class of 2016 as they "moved up" to high school. To my wonderful students, thank you so much for this year! Here are my thoughts to you in commemoration of this moment we shared...

This year marked an exciting milestone for me as a teacher because I had the incredible opportunity to teach this class within a new type of learning environment combining online interaction with face-to-face learning. True pioneers as they are, they were thrilled! Okay, thrilled might be an overstatement for how it all began, but we quickly fell into sync and began to see each other through the digital spaces and physical places we learned...and we learned together. Hopefully, they learned more than a little from me, but I doubt it would compare with what I learned from them. For that, I am extremely grateful to you all. Beyond grateful, however, I was left inspired by you, specifically by the way you always sought the next thing on our horizon and the way you engaged in the interactive components of the class. But as innovative as the experience might have been, what most inspired me was the insight I gained through your writing, something timeless and very traditional.

Through this window, I learned so much about you on an individual level, but I also began to see your perspective on some things on a collective level. At one point, I asked you to think about life as a teenager and to write an essay centered around a thesis regarding the teen experience. One of the central themes running throughout all your essays was how confusing the teenage years can be, and it occurred to me that there’s probably a good deal of fault which must come back to us for this confusion for we are the bearers of some seemingly conflicting messages.

The real trick in emerging into adulthood is finding the right balance of these seemingly conflicting points and in other areas of our lives. I would ask Ms. Petronio to show us a balancing pose to prove this next point, but we made her dress up today so I think you will have to use your imagination. Balancing is not a static condition. My yoga teacher (who isn’t quite as awesome as Ms. Petronio) always reminds us that balancing is the constant state of balancing and re-balancing. I have found this sentiment a very wise metaphor in guiding my everyday endeavors, whether it’s balancing strictness with leniency as a teacher and mom...or exercise with brownie consumption, so I thought I would focus today’s address on the top 5 balancing acts you should keep in mind each day throughout your teenage years. Full disclosure, though...most of this comes right from you!    

Balancing Act #1: Don’t be too full of yourself...but be a little full of yourself.

Has anyone seen The Avengers? Remember when Loki is mouthing off about how powerful he is, and he says to the Hulk, "Enough! All of you are beneath me. I am a god, you dull creature and I shall not be bullied." 

What does the Hulk do in response?
(ask for Justin to act, good job Justin!)
Yes, exactly, after The Hulk smashes Loki repeatedly, he slams him down and says, "Puny god." 

And that is what happens to us when we think ourselves omniscient and above all others...yet we are told we must be confident. Cailten's confidence expresses the precise balance between self-absorbed and confident. She wrote, "Everyone has obstacles in life. The way people overcome them is how their character and personality shows. Even as a teen I think that I know what I want in my life. I know what I want to be, and how I am going to get there. Nothing is going to stop me." Such belief in oneself helps us overcome the many obstacles in our life.  

Balancing Act #2: Don’t be afraid to be different...but wear your uniform impeccably!  
Evangeline wrote, “[As teens], we really don’t know who we are yet.” There is definitely a lot of experimenting with who we want to be along the way to becoming that person. We talk positively about the role of an individual, and how to be different. When I visited the civil rights museum a couple years back, I stood staring at pictures of angry white faces blocking the path to African Americans trying to make their way to class or to the counter in a diner during the desegregation movements, and I couldn’t help but wonder--if I had grown up there, in that time, with that propaganda about white supremacy flowing all around me, would I be one of those racist angry faces? It scared me because we don’t really ever know whether we will be strong enough individuals in the moments that count and have the boldness, the courage to be different than the mobs around us. And yet, I’ve seen such individual strength in many of you, and it sometimes causes you to be a bit brighter, perhaps too bright for others’ comfort sometimes, but hold onto this light.

At the same time, we have to know when and how to be a team player. There is strength and unified purpose in collective beliefs. And it really is true that “together” we build our future, so putting aside our personal agendas or transferring our light to others so that they may shine instead of us sometimes, is very important to building anything meaningful together. It’s just knowing when to sing above the chorus and when to join in the harmony that makes all the difference.

Balancing Act #3: Don’t FAIL (catastrophically)...but try hard to make and embrace some mistakes.
Claudia echoed this point when she said, “The teenager stage, I think, is one of the hardest stages. It’s the period where we try to figure out who we are, and what we want in life and it’s  all very confusing.  It’s also the age where we learn from our mistakes and use it towards the future.” The trick is not falling off the cliff in the process of misstepping a little, and of course, the ability to reflect on your mistakes to grow.

In talking to Coach Dawson, I asked about the practice of watching film after a game. He said, “When we watch film, we watch what mistakes were made, and we ask ourselves--did we run our plays correctly? Were our kids hustling like they should have been. We highlight the positive, but we look for room for improvement.” He pointed to the Heat v. Pacers series. When happens when you go up in flames and lose by 20 something? What transpires between a devastating Game 3 loss and a convincing Game 4 win and a crushing victory in Game 5?

In life, we often miss the nuances of activity surrounding what we are focusing on, and thereby miss the learning opportunities. The next time you make a mistake, even a big one, don’t just examine where the ball was on the court when you mis-shot; rewind the film so that you can see where the other players were around you, who could have helped. Was there a pass open, an assist opportunity? Rewind, play, pause, reflect, learn...and grow to victory.

He also brought up a point about the role we play in the moment versus the moment of detailed reflection, how they are different. Why can’t a coach see everything (beyond not having 10 sets of eyes)? It’s because in the moment, we have to focus on attitude, on being positive and encouraging (and not yelling our heads off...too much).  When you are in the moments of your life, almost always, it is mainly your attitude that matters, and the same is true for reflecting on your mistakes.

Balancing Act #4: Yes, you will have some new freedoms...but don’t go crazy.
Mark wrote, "Teens just do not notice how many freedoms they have. All they notice is what they don’t have." Summer H. went on to say, "For our parents, our teen years are an experiment, for us it’s getting a glimpse of adult life. Sometimes as teens feel that it’s our “right” to do whatever and be whatever we want.  Being a teen we’re exposed to a whole new dimension of good and bad. We have to be very responsible in exercising our freedoms to make the right choices." 

On this note...cut your parents some slack and realize that it’s their job to instill these freedoms a little bit at a time. Diamond wrote about this actually. She said, "Being a teen comes with a ton of responsibility. This is the period between child and adult. Once you turn 18 you’re an adult. This is probably why parents get so worked up. This is their job, but we know that they are the only people who will always be there for us." Wise words, indeed, and as a parent, AMEN!

Finally, Balancing Act #5: Work hard...but have fun.
All I can say about this one is I went to the Marlins game last night with the softball team instead of finishing this address, fortunate for you because we have to get you from here to your paintballing adventure!

As you move up today into high school and later beyond, remember to balance and rebalance constantly by shifting weight ever so slightly. I hope I have also shown you that as strong as our own voices are, when you pull them all together, there is more wisdom in the collection and more power in the rely on each other! Congratulations to all of you on all the successes (and mistakes) of this stage of your life and welcome to high school!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Misconceptions Even "Techie" Teachers Make

When I started teaching in a blended online & face-to-face environment this year, I anticipated several obstacles. However, I also made some common and critical assumptions about how students understand and use technology, and how schools approach the integration of technology. The reshaping of these misconceptions has contributed greatly to my year of learning and has informed my approach to leading new tech integrations.

Misconception #5: Students are on the cutting edge of technology.
Truth: No, they aren’t, not in the way we assume they are at least. I recently interviewed a candidate for a technology integration position and asked him how he stays current in such a dynamic field. He replied, “The kids always know what’s new.” I politely ended the conversation. Student knowledge of technology is limited to their immediate needs, driven largely during childhood by curiosity and social acceptance, not by the need to excel academically or organize, as neither of these skills is inherently age-appropriate. As a result, students develop sharp skills in select technologies but remain largely ignorant of others unless taught. For example, our students were on the forefront of using Tumblr, Photoshop, Facebook (MySpace previously), Formspring (awful site!), and HS Memes, but they knew little about Google Apps before our integration.

Misconception #4: Educational technology means using computers, Smartboards, or iPads.
Truth: At the heart of using technology should be creativity and innovation. This means making things and using them too! At the recent #TEDxNYED conference, I was so energized by a couple great presentations on the importance of making things. One presenter, Jaymes Dec challenged parents and teachers to avoid asking “What did you learn at school today?” and instead ask “What did you make in school today?” So many well-intentioned efforts to integrate technology are failing to capitalize on the innovative potential of technology because they are centered around purchasing presentation technologies. Communication of information is important, but it should not form the core purpose of technology in schools.

Misconception #3: There is an obvious link between existing tech skills and classroom applications.
Truth: There is a natural link, but students don’t often see it. When asked what technology skills they think they need to be “college and career ready”, many students point to the same set of skills often seen on a dusty resume tagline: typing, email, Word, Excel. They very often have established competencies in the use of social media, design technologies, blogging sites, Youtube, and wikis, but they do not see how these technologies can be applied in academic or work environments. This disconnect became apparent to me when I started using Facebook as a classroom communication and learning platform, and students were surprised and a bit uncomfortable at first. They later admitted that it was nice having everything in one place and receiving notifications on posts, but there was definitely a bridge which needed to be built.

Misconception #2: Technology is a perfect way to differentiate instruction.
Truth: It is in a way, but it is not necessarily differentiated in method. In other words, when we talk about differentiated instruction, we have three targets: content/skill differentiation, method/process differentiation, and product/assessment differentiation. Some online learning platforms such as Khan Academy are great for differentiating content/skill. Further, if we introduce varied student outcome options, we can also use technology to differentiate the type of assessment. However, the fact that students must be watching, listening, or reading information online rather than learning in person or “by doing” is something we need to pay attention to. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but I can see trends in locking kids into online classes because skills tracking is easier. We had this experience with our language program, and we had to reexamine our process to allow for variation in the method of learning as some students did not take to the environment. You can see this in adult learning as well. I’m going to go ahead and say it even though I learn so much from my Twitter PLN...Twitter and social media in general is not for everyone...and that is okay.

Misconception #1: Kids love learning with technology.
Truth: Students are surprisingly traditional when it comes to their definition of “good class, good teacher, good school”; at least many are. They like using technology, but they stand their ground in protecting traditional instruction. When we introduced a language tool which was interactive and allowed for students to create their own avatars, pace through content at their own rates, and work to mastery in a forgiving environment. We faced a huge backlash from our middle and high school students who really struggled to a) like it and b) learn from it. At times, they spent much of their energy not learning from it simply to prove to us that is was not an effective tool. A similar situation has emerged with Study Island where the I-Hate-Study-Island Facebook page currently has over 5,500 likes. My first two blended learning classes taught this year had starkly contrasting attitudes towards the blended experience. In one, the students were very positive and excited about learning in this highly supported virtual environment while in the other, I faced very angry students, mostly overachieving students, who adamantly opposed the arrangement at first out of fear they would not succeed. Because I failed to anticipate their response, I had to spend a good part of the first few weeks reassuring them that they would be successful and that I would actually be “teaching them”. Even though my other class liked the blended environment, they don’t all love it being paperless and organized in Google Docs. In fact, when my dad did a spotlight lesson on Of Mice and Men earlier this year, one posted to Facebook, “I love your dad, Mrs. D! He gave us a handout! I learn so much better with a handout.” Very humbling but important lesson indeed.

My three online classes I’ve taught this year have been very successful, and the one starting in January the most successful because by that time, I had corrected some of my misconceptions and preemptively assuaged a lot of anxieties regarding the new learning experience. My point in writing this isn’t to say that we should not venture down the road of integrating new technologies or using them to create progressive learning experiences, but instead that we should approach new integrations without some of the assumptions we often make.