Home Renovations and Plugging In: Reflections on Developing a Personal Learning Network

“So how are your renovations going? You must be nearly finished.”

I hang my head and reply, “No, not yet – it is still a work in progress.” Accompanied by some self-effacing laughter and a knowing smile from the owner of my favourite hardware store as he helps me locate the missing piece of the puzzle that constitutes my home.

This conversation unfolds more often, at times, than I would like; as it serves to painfully remind me that I still have much to do on our home renovations. There is still the window casements around the living room windows, dry walling to finish around the same, painting to be done, trim to install and that is just the living room. It does not start to touch the upstairs bedrooms, the ripping out of carpet, the laying of hardwood floors the touch ups to the dry wall and the painting, doors and trim that need to be completed. Then there is the basement rec. room. Well, you get the idea. This process has been unfolding for the last 8 years and has seen a significant amount of improvement but at this point can still be viewed as a work in progress.

Curiously enough it is not the only aspect of my life that I consider a work in progress. I am still learning how to play the bodhran, how to take great photographs, how to be a better parent, husband, teacher and how to improve my game at darts. This quest for improvement also applies to my development of my Personal Learning Network (PLN). Up until November of last year I had not even heard of, let alone considered, creating a PLN. This new adventure got started when I began to explore the search features of Twitter and came across Tom Whitby whom I quickly discovered was one of the most passionate education technology advocates to be found; as I searched for information on the integration of technology into my educational practice and classroom.

It was through posts by Tom that I discovered the Educator’s PLN a website devoted to the connecting of educators around the world who have a common interest in increasing their knowledge of the craft of education through sharing of ideas, resources and tips on a veritable cornucopia of topics. Up until this point I had participated in Professional Learning Communities that are part of our school’s on-going pursuit of excellence in education. My limited expertise with the blogging process was increased about this time as well as I began to locate fascinating articles on a variety of education topics from numerous fellow educators.

These experiences got me thinking about how I learn, what I learn and when I learn and where I learn. Topics that occupy teachers as we consider our students preferences when we approach a lesson with the desire to really engage the student; often times not giving a second thought to our own processes as we are caught up in the whirlwind of the classroom environment with deadlines, marking, conferencing, supervision, IPP’s and the plethora of things that take up our day. To say that a light bulb went off or that there was a paradigm shift in my thinking on this matter would be akin to referring to Mt. St. Helens as tremor.

The next revelation was that a PLN is as individual, comprehensive and tailored as the teacher creating it. In a nutshell it is a lot like Web 2.0 – which for a long time I thought was some program that I was systematically missing out on. That is until I started reading Steven W. Anderson’s Blogging About the Web 2.0 Connected Classroom. In reading his work I realized that the 2.0 classroom was a compilation of useful technological resources adapted by teachers to facilitate enquiry based learning specific to their own styles and classrooms. In the same way this is true of an individual’s PLN.

The creation of my PLN is, to say the least, a work in progress; and is currently not nearly as far along as the renovations to my house. It does consist though of some basic elements: several solid sharing sites including the Educator’s PLN and Edutopia, as well as a compilation of blogs that I follow and my twitter feed that keeps me posted on the latest offerings from a variety of sources.

Too complicated, too much time wasted? I think not. While there is a learning curve, as there is with most things in this world the old adage that you get out of something exactly what you put into it is as timeless as it is true.  While there is a certain commitment in the form of time to learn the technologies or applications to create this sort of network, once you have it up and running it is available to you when, where and how you want it to be. This allows for everything from planned reading of a blog article before bed to a spontaneous discussion that occurs over twitter as you respond to a brief thought or post that is made by other like minded individuals.

So what does this replace? In a profession where we are always being, it seems, asked to do more and more I am sad to report that nothing comes off the plate. What does happen is that you get to start selecting from a much wider menu than you had before and as you streamline your PLN to meet your distinct tastes you are no longer casting around for articles, videos or resources nearly as much. Indeed, once set up much of the desired materials find you!

Now off to the hardware store for some plumbing items. I would be very interested in your story about the creation of your PLN – I look forward to hearing from you.

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Activism or Slacktivism: Kony 2012 as a Real Life Global Case Study for Social Studies Students

@dang38 I think that our class should watch the #KONY2012 video in class tomorrow. And I think we should try get the school to partakeinit” ~C.B. Gr.10 Student St.  Andrew’s School~

 I first heard of Kony 2012 when a student tweeted me the above link to the twenty-nine minute video asking if we could watch it in class and perhaps be part of the movement that the group Invisible Children was advocating. This was important in two ways. Firstly, as indicated in other recent blog posts, I have been working on developing use of social media in the classroom; so the fact that a student saw fit, the day they learned of the classroom hashtag, on their own time tweeted to the class hashtag, felt akin to instant gratification. The second matter of import was that the student was expressing concern for a global issue that was current and in the process of going viral. I immeadiately watched the video myself and began thinking about how I could leverage this interest in one of my students into a major teachable moment.

The next day, in Social 10, I posed the question as to whom had heard of Kony2012? I got a mixed response with approximately a third of the class having viewed the video at least once. I proceeded to give students no more background on the video than that it was a grassroots movement begun in the USA to bring an end to the actions of one Joseph Kony – a Ugandan warlord. I proceeded to play the video and you could have heard a pin drop for the ensuing 29 minutes. As soon as I put the video on pause the class erupted with a variety of responses to what they had just seen. We began to discuss the Kony video in three ways. First, in light of the situation that was going on in Central Africa; we began with the basics – who can locate Uganda on a map? I got a couple of quick witted responses along the lines of, “…. its in Africa”; to the usual accompanying laughter. This portion of the conversation also revolved around an explanation of the history of the use of child soldiers by a variety of factions in that part of Africa. Secondly we examined the larger use of child soldiers globally – I wanted to make it clear to my students that we were not simply dealing with an African occurrence; but one that impacts several continents and hundreds of thousands of children. Finally, we proceeded to analyze the media that we had been exposed to; resulting in a very interesting discussion on the use of media in a global world. The extension of this was of course to get their reactions to the content of the video that they had just watched. With this much accomplished for the day I decided to leave the matter for the moment and finished off with my regularly planned lesson.

That evening I spent time doing more research on Joseph Kony and the backlash that was occurring in the media to the activities of Invisible Children. I checked my twitter feed to find that a couple of students had posted links to some articles on both Kony and Uganda in general to the classroom hashtag. Again I experienced a true sense of gratification; as learning was moving outside of the classroom and outside of scheduled class time. I proceeded to check out several articles that were sent and others that I located myself and prepared for what I hoped would constitute another highly interactive current events lesson.

” I’ve always known that we need to take a stand the problem is I don’t know how. ~L.H. Gr. 10 Student St. Andrew’s School~

The following morning I asked students  where they were at with respect to how they felt about what they had seen. I began by pointing out one of my favorite aspects about Social Studies – that it serves to disquiet the mind; once you know something you cannot, for lack of a better way of saying it, un-know it. In the news over night there had been a series of articles and editorials both supporting and criticizing Invisible Children. I had a variety of these articles ready for each of the groups I assigned. The student were given 25 minutes to review their articles and create a graffiti post on a piece of chart paper that explained the nature of their article – each group was then tasked with sharing their findings. The results of the discussion were impressive as a variety of sources from international news papers to Invisible Children themselves made comment on the initiative of the organization.

Students Sharing Findings on Kony2012 Articles

“As big of an impact the Kony 2012 video innitally made, as the days pass many more people are going to [sit] back and do nothing, and soon enough, Kony 2012 will blow by and become another example of slactivism.” ~N.M. St. Grade 10 student St. Andrew’s School~

“The video is not really focusing on informing you about the Ugandan people’s situation as, it’s about changing the people’s hearts.” ~A.M. Gr. 10 student St. Andrew’s School~ 

As the days and coverage of the story has progressed it has dropped out of top spot on major social media feeds as well as in the eye of mainstream news media. Following this last activity I have allowed the matter to rest for a bit – except for integrating it into an assignment that involved assessing the validity and authority of a source. After reviewing the key concepts about how to assess the validity and authority of a source I got students to apply this skill to analysis of time lines on the internet that dealt with Kony and Uganda. After each student had completed their evaluation of the site we have spent the first 10 minutes of each period sharing the sites that they have located and evaluated. Students became more astute, as the sharing sessions continued, about each site and its advantages as a jumping off point for more research. It was amazing to hear students build on each others experiences and provide increasing depth of analysis – going so far as to indicate if this was a site that they would use in the future.

“Most people that watch the video stop there and do not go into further research, and that makes their head stuck on what the video is just saying and they have no back ground information on the subject.” ~L.P. Grade 10 student St. Andrew’s School~

Last week I asked the class, at the beginning of the period, which was worse – to be unaware of a situation or to be aware of a situation and consciously decide that you were not going to take action? The response to this question was what one would expect – that one needs to take action once one becomes aware of a problem – though often times the situation is overwhelming and it makes it difficult for a single person to feel that their participation can truly make a difference. Several students also thought that the media nightmare that the actions of several of the group’s members including Jason Russell, who seemingly had a mental breakdown following the video going viral, has served to harm the public image of the organization. The last things that I have done to this point with my students is to examine their views on the Kony2012 experiences that they have had to date and the role that media and technology have played in this learning. These items they shared in the form of a blog within our virtual classroom – these blogs form the majority of the source material for the quotations that are included in this article.

The extension activity that I will be doing with this group is to expand the skill set that they are developing. I am still working out the details for the individual research project that can be implemented using the inquiry, assessment and sharing skills that this particular initiative had helped develop. More on that later. Where to next? Well there is a new Invisible Children video that is making the rounds – looks like my current affairs segment is looked after for another week.

I Have the Best Job In the World: Reflections on Being a Life Long Learner

I am sure that this is a sentiment that a lot of people can relate to. Many of us who have spent time in our chosen careers have developed a passion for what it is that we do. In my case that would be education. I have spent the last twelve years living and teaching in Northern Alberta; and these years have been among the most enjoyable of my life. As a teacher I often hear things like, “Oh you could not pay me enough….”, or, “I do not know how you do it.” After reading a number of blogs and thinking about it I have decided on what it is that motivates me to continue to answer this calling. It comes down to two key things: I have an excellent group of students and colleagues that I get to go to work with every day and secondly, I get to forward my own learning; you see I discovered, though I am not exactly sure when, that I am a life long learner!

Some of you may be thinking, “There is a revelation, thanks Nostradamus!” and to a large extent you may be right – it would stand to reason that I am in a profession where not only is life long learning possible, it is almost a job requirement. Allow me to postscript this last statement by saying that I am not for a moment implying in any way that teaching is the only occupation where life long learning exists; or that teachers are the only individuals who engage in this practice. That said, of late I have been pondering what it is about my job that gives me greatest joy and allows me to maintain my passion as an educator – indeed I was at a workshop today where we discussed this very question. I have also been reading many posts by other bloggers about topics that they are passionate about.

So, what is it about life long learning that allows me to connect more deeply to my practice as an educator. I suppose that it is a product of two things. First, I get tired of repetition; not that I do not believe that some learning is facilitated by repeated practice, but once you have taught the same thing multiple times, discussed it, written about it, etc. the novelty of more of the same does begin to make paying attention more difficult – even as the teacher. The other, or second aspect of all of this is that I am competitive and love a challenge; I like to find new ways to  challenge myself in the way that I present ideas. Indeed today with the technology that is available to teachers, and society as a whole, the ability to challenge yourself and to link to others, both within the school and the world at large, that enjoy doing the same is a powerful motivator; and keeps the creative juices flowing.

These  I feel have a direct impact and benefit to my students. It allows me to see traditional materials in new ways or examine and deliver the content in new ways. The conversations and ideas that are shared, I am the member of an amazing staff team in this regard, and the readings and exchanges that I am able to engage in with other educators both within the province, the nation and abroad first make me realize how little I actually know, and secondly, create a powerful motivating force to go and find out more about my chosen profession and subject matter. This I bring back with me to the classroom level where I feel that it translates into increased enthusiasm on my part – which I hope translates into increased motivation and desire to inquire on the part of my students.

The practice of sharing some of these learning experiences directly with my students allows them to see that they are not the only ones that are engaged in learning; that it is a journey that we are all on together, just at different points along the path.

So, what makes you passionate about what you do? How do you engage in being a life long learner?

Published in: on November 25, 2011 at 11:39 pm  Comments (2)  
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Back to the Basics: Needs of Today’s 21st. Century Learners

Today the education profession is rife with buzz terms to describe what it is we are attempting to do with respect to engaging students in a modern, meaningful way. As an educator I have been inundated with terms like: the 21st Century Classroom, Web Tools 2.0, On-line publishing, Twitter feeds, blogging, the Virtual Classroom, networking, best practices, Sky Drives and the list goes on. It is a lot to take in for anyone; especially teachers who due to classroom workload and commitments outside of the classroom even when motivated in this regard. As an educator I am fascinated by the opportunities that much of this modern technology potentially offers to both my colleagues, myself as well as my students.

In planning for and making use of many of these modern technological advances in the classroom one of the greatest obstacles, next to my own learning curve and planning, is the fact that many students do not seem to have a command of the basic skill sets to make the most use of these programs. In many smaller school settings computer classes may be limited or non-existent, or teaching technological practices that are fast moving out of vogue. I well remember when PowerPoint was a skill that was considered to be fairly advanced in the realm of presenting of students findings. While this is still an important skill that assists students in assembling and processing information it is by no means the end all and be all. Today I find that many students, while they have heard of many of the above items, have had very little exposure to actually using or manipulating these new technologies. In many cases the most sophisticated programming some use is Facebook – not that it is not a hallmark tool in the realm of social networking – it does leave a lot to be desired in teaching the skills that students need in order leverage maximum return on the use of technology in the classroom.

I continue to ponder how best to deal with this situation in my own classroom as some of my students struggle to utilize these new technologies in their studies. There are several conclusions that I have reached in this regard. First and foremost be selective, as an educator, about which new technologies you are going to use in the classroom – too much too fast will leave everyone scrambling and feeling frustrated. You, as the teacher, because your student are not getting it fast enough and what should have been a 40 minute assignment has turned into a 80 or more minute nightmare for all concerned. Second, make sure that you as the teacher have a fairly solid command of the technologies that you are using in the classroom. Often I spend several months working with a program or feature before introducing it into the classroom – when I first started there were somethings like my virtual classroom through Taking IT Global where I spent almost a year experimenting before I rolled it out to the students.  There are still days when my students hear, “stupid computer!” As I attempt to get some program to work; that was working fine for me when there was no audience. Third, and this may be the most important – allow time in your planning to teach the specific skills necessary to utilize the technology that you are implementing in your classroom. Do not make the assumption that because students are using a variety of digital devices that they have any idea about the specifics of using the specific technology that you are getting ready to use in your classroom. Finally as the teacher we have to accept that, as with many things that we try in our classrooms, to expect that some things are just not a good fit and need to be scrapped.

When it comes to implementation of a new technology in the classroom I plan, after pondering this dilemma, to ensure sufficient time so that students have the time to be instructed in the specific technology as well as getting a chance to engage in a guided  exploration of  the technology prior to using. While this will cut into curriculum instruction time – I believe that done properly the technology will pay larger dividends in the long run. This, to many may seem like only good teaching practice but for many of us trying to make sense of technology ourselves, its implementation in the classroom in a meaningful manner and giving our students an optimal opportunity to utilize this technology these ideas may be worth thinking about.

How do you leverage the use of technology in your classroom?

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