Monday, November 25, 2013

Writing - Enjoyable Pastime or Annoying Burden

I love to write. I'm not very good at it. I ramble a bit and I use too many commas. For example, I love starting sentences with "for example,." I also like to start sentences with "then,." But, the bottom line is, I like to write and I write what words/sentences appear in my head as I'm typing.

So, (there's that comma again) I opened my laptop this morning to work on my book. Actually it's a book I am co-authoring with a wonderful BIE pal - Telannia Norfar.  I opened my Google Drive and opened the doc. But I just didn't feel like writing.

Instead I opened this blog and started typing away. I wasn't (still aren't) sure what I will produce. But I know it will be about writing.  It's kind of like St. Patty's Day in 2009 when I wrote my first post: Happy St. Patty's Day . I created my Blogger account and just created a post from whatever popped into my head. As a matter of fact, I rarely know what I'm going to write before I write. That's because I know that once I start it will all just come together.

There are times that I have a topic that I really want to write about. And there are times when I'd like to write about a topic but I'm worried I'll offend my handful of readers. I'm still living my life as a tight-lipped Yankee with the additional pressure of being a retired military guy and a current teacher. I can't wait until I get to about 62 years old. I want to relax about what I say and what I do. Ironically, with 62 years of leading this life I may not be able to open up then.

I just paused and I have produced 4 paragraphs and this post is rolling along. Why,then, did the idea of writing in my book cause me such anxiety? I think because I feel pressured to: a) write a good book, b) do a good job so my partner is happy with what I write, and c) I need to finish this book - there's a deadline.

Deadlines and worrying about what you write are real cripplers. Instead of sitting with a glass of bourbon in a rustic cabin with a fire crackling, I'm sitting in my middle class, cookie cutter house, with the need to produce a masterpiece. The first visual reminded me of my ski condo in Tahoe in 1986. Sitting in a hot tub with the snow coming down all around me. And the glow of the fireplace showing through the window. Ahhhh....those were the days......

Sorry, I drifted off......Writing can be a real burden. So how then do you create great works if you are sitting with the weight of the world on your fingers? You need to find that place in your heart or head where you produce great things.  For me, I'm writing this to stir up my creative juices prior to working on my next chapter in the book. I'm writing so that I can write.

You shouldn't let writing become a burden. And, neither should we make writing a burden for our students. Let them have time to write whatever they want to write. Have them write in every content area - including P.E. and Music. Create a time for spontaneous writing: "For the next 15 minutes I want you to write about what you did this morning prior to walking into my classroom." And let them make up things. If it's close to being realistic then it really doesn't matter what they write. And what if they write that they rode a dinosaur to school this morning? Commend them on being such great thinkers - and writers.

Many of our students will never get to the point where writing is fun because of their experience in school. My daughter was an awesome writer in middle school and she loved writing stories for Fanfiction. Talking with her during her senior year she stated that all of the fun was taken out of writing because she "only knew how to write in AP-style."  She, literally, didn't think she could write for fun any more! What the heck happened? School happened.

I love to write. I'm not very good at it. I ramble a bit and I use too many commas. For example, I love starting sentences with "for example,." I also like to start sentences with "then,." But, the bottom line is, I like to write and I write what words/sentences appear in my head as I'm typing. And, sometimes, I find strange ways to end a post. Thank you for reading this. Now back to "work." Or will it be back to "some fun."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Teachers Using PBL Need to Model Critical Elements of the Process

There may only be 20 or so regular readers of this blog but because anybody can read it I'll need to keep this as generic as possible.  The reason is because of some trials and tribulations I've had this semester with helping teachers reach their full potential.

To start with, our school is extremely fortunate to have some really awesome teachers. And I'm being totally sincere and I'm not writing that just so I can build them up before I chop them down. I'd put our teachers up against any other middle school in Texas. It wouldn't even be a contest.

Now, are there better teachers at other schools? And do I know dozens of teachers who are better than teachers at our school? Absolutely. But most schools I know have to deal with some major issues with teachers who are dead wood.  They're collecting a paycheck but that's about it. We don't have that problem. And it's pretty nice.

So, what's the problem? Well, we're trying to create a school that is using PBL as its primary mode of instruction. And only a handful of our teachers are where they need to be. Ironically, that's not the issue! The issue is with a few teachers who are doing great things, individually, and are teaching with PBL. But they bristle whenever we push them to up their game.

PBL is all about collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. There are other 21st century skills that people throw in all of the time like work ethic and agency and digital citizenship. But the first three I mentioned are incredibly important for TEACHERS to demonstrate by their interactions with other teachers and administrators.

Collaboration takes on many hats. Teachers have to collaborate with the other teachers in their subject area and grade level. They have to collaborate with administrators and with instructional coaches. And, they have to collaborate with others, outside of the school, who might come on campus to visit. These visitors may be regulars, like district curriculum, or they may come from other institutions.

Critical thinking may not be as obvious as collaboration. But teachers have to think critically about how they will create a project idea and how they will incorporate real world authenticity into the project. They need to think about group dynamics. They need to think about scaffolding content and they must anticipate questions students will ask.

And, most importantly, teachers have to be able to communicate their ideas and plans. They need to create written plans and they must find ways to communicate project ideas to their students. They need to communicate issues or concerns to their administrators, the parents of their students, and to instructional help such as coaches at the school level or the district level.

Beyond these obvious three, there is something that is often overlooked as an important skill - reflection. People who are reflective in their practice are usually better at what they do. I don't have a scientific study to point you to that proves the point, but I'm sure it would be easy to find one. As a teacher in a PBL classroom we want our students to be reflective in all that they do. They critique their own work and the work of other students throughout the project. And, when it ends, students will critique the project as a whole. This gives the teacher valuable feedback on how things went and allows for corrections, should the teacher want to run a similar project in the future.

Similarly, in a PBL school we want our teachers to be reflective in all that they do. One of the elements of project ideation that is a focus with both the New Tech Network and with BIE is the Critical Friends Protocol. This protocol allows teachers to be reflective in a safe environment. In this protocol the presenter (in this case the teacher creating the project) presents the project idea and any supporting documents such as rubrics or a project calendar. The presenter then removes themselves from the conversation.

The audience discusses what they have heard. They first discuss things they like about what they heard. Then they discuss things they are wondering about. This is not the time to interject improvements. Instead it should be something like, "I wonder if they have considered the prerequisite skills needed for student success?" Finally the audience provides next steps that might be considered. These might be critical things that the presenter should do immediately or it might be something that is more of a suggestion that the presenter takes into consideration.

Critical Friends is not happening at our campus. There just isn't a system in place for that to take place. When I visited a New Tech middle school outside of Napa California last year I got to see a school that has a routine in place where teachers meet and are ready to listen to presentations and then give feedback via critical friends. It was awesome. I had critical friend envy. I truly expected that our teachers would be doing things just like that this year. They're not, and this falls squarely on my shoulders to fix.

Without something as structured as critical friends, I fear that there is little to no reflection going on within our teacher ranks. But when I start to bring this up it's either fended off as "one more thing for us to do" or it is seen as touchy-feely. These awesome teachers that I mentioned earlier in the post need to do more collaborative reflection. They need to hear constructive criticism. They need to start thinking about authenticity in their projects. They need to take their craft to a higher level. That, in turn, would bring up the level of the teachers around them.

If that happened, it wouldn't be long before all of our teachers would be running projects and we would have a regularly scheduled critical friends time. And we would have a more collaborative and reflective mindset in our school. We have really pushed our teachers this year and they have responded with everything we have asked of them. They are in the November slump and I know it. But when January comes around we'll need to re look at where we are and where we want to go. This needs to happen with each teacher, with each content area, with each grade level and with the entire campus.

Our teachers need to be collaborative, communicative, critical thinkers who are reflective in their practice. It's not like we're asking a lot of them. Well, actually, it is. We are asking a lot of them because they're that good. Our students deserve the best and it is my job to show our teachers their full potential. Ah, the life of an instructional coach. Wish us luck.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

I Write For Me - Who Do You Write For?

Last week I attended Edcamp Austin. Then I sat down and started writing a post about my day. I didn't get very far because I wasn't feeling well and the creative juices just weren't flowing. So, the next day I started again. I re-read what I had written, fixed typos, wrote a few more sentences and called it a day.

A few days later I was starting to feel better and so I opened up the blog and re-read (yet again) what I had written. I rewrote a few sentences and maybe added two more sentences and then stopped. Later that night I read a really great AND INFORMATIVE blog post and I realized that I write, almost entirely, for myself. I don't try and write a great "how-to" post. I don't write posts about "20 Great blah, blah blahs.." And, not that I can't be deep, I don't write a post that makes the whole world take notice. I write for me.

Now, is that a bad thing? No, definitely not. The best educators, business people, and politicians take time to reflect on their work and on their thinking. Reflection is a key element in the PBL process and is a key difference between a great teacher and a pretty good teacher. I like to write reflective pieces.

And so tonight I started beating myself up because I hadn't finished the post I had started a week ago. But darn it - I'm not on commission. I don't get paid to write posts. My only deadlines are self imposed. So you know what I did? I opened up a new post and started writing. And what you are reading is what I ended up writing.

The other post? I'm about to go in and hit "delete" on that post. It was about Edcamp Austin and there will be another edcamp in my future. I didn't do anything Earth shattering in my session there. As a matter of fact I didn't do much at all because I felt pretty darn sick and only did a session because my friend asked me if I would. No biggie..

I can now finish this post up and hit "publish."  It may not get any views and that's OK. I'm writing this to remind myself that it's OK to just write for, well, myself.  And I hope that if you actually have gotten this far in this post that you stop and, just this once, write a post (or a journal entry or diary entry) just for yourself. You can even use the same title. But write down your thoughts and think about something you did this month, this week, or maybe this weekend or today.

When you finish it go ahead and post it - if you have a blog. No blog? Then attach it here in my comments section. Or, if you aren't ready to let others read it - put it somewhere with a set date that you intend to re-read it. And when you re-read it write another post or entry about what you're thinking about at that point. Before you know it, you might have created a blog that others stumble upon and decide that, maybe, they can write posts too.  Thank you for reading - and writing.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Am I Really Going To Do An Edcamp Again?

I'm thinking about doing the whole edcamp thing again.  There, I said it.  After my last foray into running an Edcamp (Edcamp Manor) two years ago, I vowed I'd just attend them and never try putting one on again.

I wrote about creating the edcamp in an early blog post. Then, I wrote about my frustrations with how awful it went here. So, after re-reading those posts now, I really am amazed that I can say that I'm thinking about doing it again.

Maybe it was attending Edcamp Waller.  Maybe it was having to miss Edcamp San Antonio and Edcamp Dallas.  Maybe it's looking forward to Edcamp Austin (next week).  All I know is there are about 20 educators who attended most (if not all) of these edcamps and these folks really represent the best educators here in the United States. OK, so that's a bold statement. But I happen to know, or have talked with, some really awesome educators over the last 5 years. And these Texas edu-pros are the real deal.

So, if I ran another edcamp what would it look like?  First, it would be PBL themed. I would want presenters to lead discussions on all phases of a PBL unit.  There would be cool ways to do an entry event. There would be teachers who have connected with their community to create opportunities for authentic learning. There would be teachers who have found creative ways to use technology for scaffolding. And there would be students actually presenting their projects.

But will a themed edcamp still be an edcamp?  Here's what they say in the wiki page and at the Edcamp.org webpage about that. "Educational technology is a common topic area for edcamps, as are pedagogy, practical examples in instructional use of modern tools, and solving the problems technology can introduce in the classroom environment." And, "Anyone who attends an Edcamp is able to be a presenter. All teachers and educational stakeholders are viewed as professionals worthy of sharing their expertise in a collaborative setting."

So, as long as I allow attendees to be presenters and as long as they are including technology or pedagogy (or both), then it can be an edcamp!  I can do it! And...I can do it.  This time there will be some differences though.

I'll get my district experts involved early in the planning.  I'll hit my twitter experts and pbl network early to encourage people to come to it. And I'll ask them to bring ideas and/or presentations. Most importantly, I'll ask students to come and be a part of the process. 

The students coming is the part that worries me when it comes to being faithful to the edcamp process. Session sign up should be first come, first served to really meet the mark. Then again, if the edcamp sessions were set up like that, I could have student sessions going all day that would be open to anyone who wants to come and watch.

There are a lot of details to work out but my goal is to complete the planning by the time the school year ends and to have the edcamp during the fall of 2014.  Have a date in mind? Leave it in the comments. Remember we have to work around the University of Texas football schedule. 

This is exciting and scary.  That's what I like about it. Care to help a guy out? Let me know - I'll put you to work.