What is relevant?

I’ve enjoyed reading the reflections post-Educon2.2. There’s been much food for thought. So much that I couldn’t quite pin point what my big take-away from the weekend was. I had Tweeted on Saturday that “mentoring, leadership and individualized learning” seemed as if they were going to be big themes on Saturday, but when I opened my little notebook today, here’s what I saw:

To who was I referring when I wrote this? Was I writing about the students or the educators? I am not sure. It should absolutely be both. Here are my thoughts from Saturday (Sunday is another post in the works).

Disclaimer: I’m putting this all in my own words and not in the words of the articulate conversation leaders.

Session 1: Subversive PD: Creating a culture of collaboration to bring educators into the 21st Century

Danja Mahoney, Michael Springer, and Beth Knittle got us to talk about how to make professional development not suck. (Please see disclaimer.)

Three shared concepts from this session were:

  1. make sure you have achievable goals
  2. encourage your attendees to leave with something tangeable
  3. plan for time to play

These three facilitators did an excellent job in creating an environment where we truly had a conversation. We talked in our small groups as well as a whole group.

I left the session in agreement with many in the room. The best type of PD is individualized. It’s also the toughest, most time-consuming and most rewarding type as well.

Session 2: Taking the load off a learner’s mind: Cognitive Load Theory in Education

First of all. Chris Craft is an excellent storyteller. Second of all. Chris knows a lot of stuff I don’t know. I want to know more.

Cognitive Load Theory:

(We can design instruction that prevents overload.)

  1. intrinsic – our natural level of load
  2. germane – this is what we want for our students
  3. extraneous – what we don’t want

Chris shared that the goal of learning is to effect a change in long term memory. He spoke briefly about what the brain is capable of remembering (chunking) and of  automaticity. The conversation lent itself nicely to Universal Design for Learning and how to reduce extraneous loads for our students.

Session 3: Improving Professional Development with Online PD

Barbara Treacy and  Chris Champion began this conversation with the question “What can and can’t be taught online?”. I really thought my group would come up with a specific list, but instead we began a wonderful conversation about designing effective professional development. The idea is that with the tools available to us today like Screen-cast-o-matic and Scribd, it’s all about the facilitator and the participants networking and using the resources effectively. Ultimately, we can teach anything online.

So, how do we make it relevant for our students be they children or adults? How do we teach with rigor?

I honestly don’t have the two sentence answer. I don’t think it exists. I’m not even working on coming up with it. I am, however, taking pieces of these three sessions and embedding them into my plans for the upcoming weeks hoping for improvement. There’s always room for that.

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Are We Idealistic or Optimistic?

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One of the responsibilities of my job at the CMSCE at Rutgers University is to offer sustained professional development in Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Some of the districts that I have been working with are part of a grant through the NJ Department of Education called the INCLUDE grant and some of them have taken it upon themselves to begin to embed UDL principles in their curriculum. In either case, I get the opportunity to develop a rapport with the teachers, work with them over a sustained period of time, customize the professional development to their needs and the needs of their students and in some cases have the opportunity to go into their classrooms and co teach with them.

One of the topics that we spend a large chunk of time talking about in our professional development on UDL is removing barriers from our lessons, curriculum and classrooms so that more students can reach the objectives of the lessons. We show teachers all types of digital tools that help students decode directions using text-to-speech tools, highlighters and even something as simple as just making fonts larger. We talk about using mind maps and imagery to help visual learners. We offer the concepts of allowing students to represent that they have met the objectives of a unit by a means of their choice versus a single choice assignment or assessment.

I urge educators that are involved in UDL to make use of social bookmarking. I share my Delicious and Diigo bookmarks with them and encourage them to explore the “tag” for UDL. I try to show them the power of collaboration not just with the teachers they are working with, but with other teachers in the state and the nation that are also embracing these same techniques in their classrooms. We join conversations in the UDL4ALL Ning and look for other schools and educators that are implementing these same principles in their classrooms to share their experieinces with us.

During one of my recent UDL sessions, I invited my friend, and UDL guru, Karen Janowski to Skype in with us. When I had first met the group of teachers they told me they were “just not getting UDL”. I talked to them for about an hour and made some suggestions about how I might help them move forward and then explained to them that I don’t learn alone. I learn from and with others.  I asked them who they had learned from and they mentioned Karen’s name and her Toolkit.  I indicated that I would ask her if she was available for a Skype with us and it seemed as if it was a completely new concept. (Many of the folks in my PLN wouldn’t think twice of video conferencing with someone who had the answers to some of the questions they had.) I explained to the group that by making this connection, the answers might be a bit more meaningful to them. They would see Karen’s toolkit not just as a list of valuable links, but as resources from a thoughtful educator from Massachusetts that took the time to speak with them.

Karen gave us some great suggestions after we told her we were still looking for ways to increase our Activity Toolkit. We talked about general tools to help remove barriers for different types of learners and specific ways to make accommodations in our classrooms for the three Brain Networks. Since these teachers were part of the INCLUDE grant and had a focus specifically on middle school math, she suggested Mathcasts and MathPlayground as resources for activities to integrate with the curriculum.

Then the conversation went down a different road. One of the teachers brought it back to a topic we had been discussing before Karen had joined us on Skype. The teacher spoke of three specific barriers that they felt could not be removed from the situation.
The Three Barriers:

  1. Teachers cannot count on support from home. Most students go home to older or younger siblings and do not see parents until much later in the evening.
  2. These are classified students, ELL students and students that tend to not test well. We can’t change that.
  3. Time. There is never enough of it and they are told to get through the curriculum by the end of March so that all content is covered before the State testing. Then after testing they can go back and redo anything they feel needs reinforcement.

After the teacher laid it on the line so clearly, there was really nothing Karen or I could say that was going to bring her back to what she COULD do. These barriers are the realities of her challenges.

What are the realities of your challenges? Karen and I both commented that we might be idealists…

Yesterday I shared these three barriers with the group of teachers I am working with in another NJ district. In this group, there are some non-public school teachers that join our sessions. This made for interesting conversation, since a non-public school might make different requirements for its teachers than a public school with its union teachers.

He offered his districts answers to some of these barriers:

  1. Each teacher is to offer “Office Hours” once a week. These are to be the same day each week from the end of the school day at 2:45 until 3:45. Students are to make appointments and parents are to arrange for transportation. These hours are designed so that students that need help from their teacher outside the typical school day, can get it.
  2. Each teacher is to make themselves available to help students during their recess time. (Recess in this school is held before lunch time.)
  3. In this particular non-public school, the text book guides the curriculum for mathematics. Get done what you can.

I have yet to find anyone who has all the answers. But collectively, we do a pretty good job. I don’t know if I’m an idealist or an optimist. I know there are at least two sides to every story. Really, what are the realities of our challenges in the classroom? Are you the teacher that throws up barriers or walls or excuses at every accommodation that is suggested or are you this teacher? Thanks Chris Craft – you had perfect timing today.

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Be Teachable

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Written on one of the tables at http://educon21.wikispaces.com/Conversations#e313-4

Many bloggers have been posting their take-aways from Educon2.1. I have to admit that though I was sad to leave SLA and my PLN on Sunday afternoon and even sadder to say goodbye to Liz Davis as I left her at the Philadelphia Airport an hour later, my brain was fried. I wasn’t ready to think about next year or reflect on this year’s conference.

Let’s be honest. I wasn’t ready to drive home as I hadn’t had enough sleep. I wasn’t ready to tackle all the laundry that was waiting for me or to have to go grocery shopping to make sure that we had supplies for the girls’ lunches on Monday. Oh, and I wasn’t ready for my workshop on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. I was shot.

What are ya gonna do? Get ready!!

The next day I drove back towards Philly to work with a group of teachers on UDL. It was our third of 5 sessions together, so these were teachers that I had already built a rapport with. We talked openly about good teaching and what was working in their classrooms and then I asked them to take my presentation for the day and redo it so that it was more accessible to them.  We worked on the concepts behind multiple methods of presentation and worked on which tools would help them meet the objectives of the UDL framework. At first they were uncomfortable with editing my presentation. I explained that I had designed it that way to make a point and to teach me a more appropriate way to present these same ideas. I was hoping that they had really looked at the YouTube videos and wikis I had shared with them about PowerPoint reform.

On the drive home I spoke with a tech coordinator from a high school in North Jersey. We had been trying to connect with each other for a couple of weeks, so using the hands-free device in the car, I listened to him talk to me about how great the school’s infrastructure was, how they had at least four computers in each classroom, plus a couple of COWs. What he needed from me was to come in and get the teachers excited about using technology and to give them the tools, skills and confidence to bring their school into the 21st Century. I found myself thinking that I’d be happy to help him as log as his staff was teachable.

0128091The next day I drove to North Jersey to finish some SMARTBoard mentoring I mentioned in a previous post. I had 5 sessions mapped out for the morning ranging from a group of pre-k teachers with no IWB experience to a 5th grade teacher with over a year’s experience who was thirsty to learn the more advanced features of the technology.  What I didn’t expect was the middle school language arts teacher who walked in the room who had just started working at the school the prior week. She immediately asked me how this technology would help her get her students to be better writers. I asked her how she teaches them to write. We only had 25 minutes together, so you can understand that I needed to make some pretty quick decisions. She was very much against using any technology in the classroom because (…and you’ve heard this one before…) when she was a student, she learned to write just fine without a computer.

I sat and calmly talked with her about how not every piece of technology meets every need. That she might consider using collaborative documents with her students. I asked her if she wanted to make sure that her students were ready for high school, college and the work force in addition to being good writers. She said she was interested in learning how she could integrate technology and still teach the pedagogy behind good writing. She was open to ideas. She was teachable. I invited her to the upcoming Google Learning Institute at Rutgers University.

I was scheduled to drive back towards Philly today to work in one of the middle schools in Camden City School District. I work with a team of stellar teachers there in my 21st Century Learning Initiative. Though I’m disappointed it was canceled due to the snow (the district closed the schools), it gave me a chance to go through my inbox, my notes from Educon2.1 and look back at the week and what’s still to come.

What have I learned?

I tell people I try to learn something each day. I’m pretty sure that on the days I’m out in the field working with teachers I learn way more than one thing. I know I learn more than one thing a day when I attend a professional development event, be it in person or virtually.

I try to be teachable. Whether you are a noobie or a seasoned educator or somewhere in between – be teachable.