A Platform for Student Voice: My Inspiring Idea presented at the Google Teacher Academy

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At the Google Teacher Academy, I was selected to share an “Inspiring Idea” with the group. It was with great honor that I shared my passion with the cohort; Utilizing Technology to Connect Students, Enabling Them to Share Their Voice with the World.  (Student names have been changed)

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I smiled at Mr. Noonan through the screen of our shared Google Hangout as he read the next question for debate. Our students, standing on opposite sides of the globe, nervously listened to him speak as they sheepishly smiled at one another. Noonan began, “Did Man invent God as a reason to exist? Sylvia,” he added, “you may go first.”

Sylvia, Noonan’s student from Sweden, moved a bit closer to the computer so her words and body language were evident to both classes. She greeted Michael, my student in Iowa who waved backed, poised to debate with Sylvia. Sylvia was a top student in Noonan’s class; a skilled speaker with great intellect. But, in Iowa, my student Michael was the student body president, a thespian, a leader in our school who possessed skill and knowledge to match that of Sylvia. Sylvia began, arguing that God was not real, citing multiple personal experiences, backing them up with the philosophical thinking of Sartre and Kierkegaard; she spoke with ease. And although I was impressed, I was excited for Michael to counter, I knew that my student had experience in debate, but also the confidence and charisma to engage an audience.

Sylvia recapped her points and Michael moved towards the screen. The class smiled knowing that they were going to witness a master student weave his experiences as a preacher’s son, with his vast theology knowledge to argue against Sylvia.

Michael opened his mouth to speak and out tumbled the word, “Sorry….. I guess I disagree.”

I shifted in my seat from the uncomfortableness of the moment. The word “Sorry” ringing through my head! This was not the Michael I knew. His struggle continued; his voice weakened. I clenched my fist, digging my nails into my palm, wanting to bail Michael out of an awkward moment, but knowing I shouldn’t. As his time came to an end, he once again apologized for his opinion and quickly sat down. The bell rang; we were all saved.

With advances in technology, our world is shrinking. And while we want our students to contribute to the sea of global communication that they are immersed in, that one example shined a light onto what was missing in my teaching. From that point forward, I made it my priority to equip all students with the skills necessary to communicate effectively through various modes while maintaining their own identity. Realizing that their truth and opinion is just as strong and “right” as another person’s truth. Growing up in Iowa helped shaped them into who they were today and they should be proud they experienced bonfires and fireflies, playing with cousins in a hayloft, or the humidity that made bugs stick to their legs in the summer.

Through a connection on Twitter, I had met John Noonan, a philosophy teacher at an IB school in Sweden, which was comprised with mostly diplomat’s children from around the world. In Iowa, I had a homogeneous makeup of white, middle-class, Christian students who had connected with students around the state and nation but not globally.

We designed a unit around Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Co-teaching, John would focus on existentialism and other philosophies and I would apply the different lenses to the literature and poetry we were reading. Google hangouts and Google docs allowed for the real-time collaboration necessary to not only increase student understanding on a difficult concepts, but the shared document between the two classes served as a backchannel during the lectures; allowing us to view student thinking,misconceptions or questions, and to provide a common place for collective learning. When the planned hangouts were completed, the students urged us to continue the collaboration.

Noonan and I paired the students for a collaborative debate/presentation, using digital means to cross the global divide and broaden knowledge. Students once again turned to GAFE because of the collaborative nature, creative possibilities and ease that were needed to connect and communicate. What we didn’t expect to happen was the out-of-class friendships that were built. Our students started using google chat and hangouts to work on their projects, and also build relationships with their new classmates. They soon realized that they had more in common than different and what started as an off-the-cuff remark of “We want to go to Sweden to meet our friends” turned into a reality. In September the students approached the school board for approval for their international trip. We were immediately approved and began raising money, acquiring passports, and determining schedules and lodging.  In the fall we were in Iowa reading Hamlet,,, later that spring we were standing in Hamlet’s castle.

Just because something is difficult to measure on standardized tests does not mean that it is not important to teach. Communication is changing as rapidly as technology, and because of this, we need students to be able to communicate effectively, advocate for themselves and others and realize the importance of maintaining their identity. Although this connection was a springboard for an international learning experience; connecting, collaborating and creating beyond the four walls of the school building increases engagement, is easily replicated, and can provide a platform for students to share their voice!

Google Teacher Academy: A Reflection Through Tweets Day 1

For the past 2 days I have had the privilege to learn from 50+ top educators from around the United States and Canada.  The Google Teacher Academy, this time in Austin, Texas; provided the opportunity, space, and framework for the selected cohort and lead learners to blend a student-first mindset, with a passion for edtech, topped with unwavering ambition to make a difference in education! While I will break down the specifics in future blog posts, Day 1 Focused on creating a culture of community, by building relationships with a group of educators who have mainly been only connected virtually. The following is a collection of tweets I gathered to highlight the experience.

As the day ended, we left exhausted and inspired by our design thinking, modeled after NoTosh (Mad Respect for Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett) and ready to continue the conversation well into the night.
Quoting my good friend Kenneth Durham, “It’s all about Relationships!” and Day 1 proved to be a beautiful start to beginning of life-long friends!

Differentiation: Workshop Framework to Support All Students

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 3.55.32 PMA week after an invigorating ITEC conference, Matt Degner, a principal in Iowa City shared a blog post with me from a teacher implementing Genius Hour in his classroom. Matt and I have had many conversations about this topic, and while his teacher spoke about the various tasks students in his room may be working on; I realized, for many, constructing a framework that supports student-directed learning is difficult for many educators. Breaking the traditional model of a factory-like education system, where all students are expected to be in the same place and on the same content, is a daunting expectation.

Channeling my personal experiences with Genius Time, mixed with the instructional framework of Atwell’s Workshop Model Classroom and the refined learning from my experience at the Teacher’s College in New York this summer, it dawned on me that the Workshop framework would be ideal in this type of setting.

My Advice:

End Goal: A deep student understanding of a concept while honing skills necessary to tackle any project-based exploration. Through Genius Hour, or Passion-Based Learning, we want students to become experts in a particular area, obtaining a depth of knowledge that is transferable to multiple situations the concept is placed within.

Skills: For this area, the advice of my friend Cornelius Minor is a constant reminder! Identify the skills necessary to move all students forward. What does this type of exploration and eventual sharing of learning have in common no matter the student-chosen content?                                                        **********Teach the STUDENT, not the assignment!*****************                                      Example skills may include, developing a driving question that is unGoogleable, gathering reliable and relevant sources, or communication through writing.

Instruction: The beauty of the workshop framework is that it allows multiple student and teacher activities to be taking place in one class period. The 3 major type of instruction include:

  1. Whole Class Instruction – Identify a teaching point, decide on mode of delivery, model, practice and send them off to continue application. This should be streamlined to take 10-15 mins.
  2. Small Group Instruction – Identify a common need with a small group of students. Intentional learning with modeling, application, and follow-up is a basic template. Targeted instruction to enhance student application of skill identified. During small group instruction, it is an excellent time to leave specific “mentor texts” behind for continued reflection and application.
  3. One on One – During independent work time, teachers can confer with students about their progress, success and challenges, in order to collect formative assessment. This general pulse of the class allows future instruction that is targeted and relevant to the needs and end goal.

Share/Reflection: The workshop model also builds in the value of reflection and the sharing of work within the framework. Many times the learning is in the Process, not necessarily the end product. The sharing of their learning is not only valuable in Genius Hour, but in many other projects. A different audience than the traditional, lone teacher increases engagement and relevance and demonstrates the application of learning beyond the four walls.

The Workshop Framework is versatile to fit any content and time restraints. To orchestrate differentiation within the classroom, the focus must be clear and the ability to get many “plates” spinning at the same time an objective. The framework allows all students to progress simultaneously no matter where on the continuum they enter our room!

Patrick Larkin: Iowa 1:1 Leadership Day

Last Saturday I had the pleasure to attend #EdCampIowa in Cedar Falls. The day was filled with thought-provoking conversations with passionate educators connecting and collaborating for the betterment of student learning. A common theme appearing in multiple sessions spanning from Special Education and Inclusion to the final session Matt Townsley and I facilitated Rocks and Stinks was Professional Development! During an extended conversation over lunch, Townsley shared a term known as “Apprenticeship of Observation” coined by Dan Lortie. In essence, teachers teach as they were taught, their beliefs formed early in their educational careers when they themselves were students. And even though many have had opportunities to explore new research, attend professional development, and view model teaching; most educators revert back to their beliefs, which at times, they know are not best for student learning.

Besides opportunity to reflect upon these ingrained beliefs, evaluating their usefulness and letting go of the ones that deter student learning and engagement; administrators also need to model best practice during staff meetings and professional development, avoiding their own beliefs that may contradict what they expect to see in their teachers’ classrooms.

This modeling of expectations made me connect immediately to the April Leadership Day at the Iowa 1:1 Conference. Below is an interview I had with Patrick Larkin about the day. Larkin plans to facilitate a day with school leaders that promotes engagement and social learning so that the experience provides a frame of reference for administrators as they plan professional development in their own digitally-rich schools.

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“I am coming to learn, facilitate learning, and provide a social learning experience to school leaders.” -Patrick Larkin, highlighting his agenda for the Iowa 1:1 Conference Leadership Day.

Three years ago, Patrick Larkin, Assistant Superintendent from Burlington Public School in Massachusetts, made the long trip to attend the 2nd Annual Iowa 1:1 Conference. His objective was to meet, face to face, the Iowa connections he had made online and to deepen his knowledge of 1:1 learning within an educational environment. This year, Larkin returns to Iowa to facilitate a Leadership Day prior to the April 10th conference.

Speaking to Larkin, it is clear that student learning is at the forefront of all decisions he makes. In fact, part of the reason his district chose ipads for implementation was to allow students to customize their device. Now, in year three, Larkin has approached  his leadership team with the idea of  leaving device selection up to each individual student. The school would provide choice, allowing the learner to select the device that best meets their needs.

Although Larkin was personally educated in a traditional environment, as a leader in a 1:1 school district he recognizes three advantages students in technology-rich districts have:

1.  Access. Students are able to connect with learners and experts anytime, anywhere.

2. Organization. “The dog ate my homework,” is no longer an excuse. With a personal device, students are able to organize and access their material with ease.

3. Digital Footprint. Students are able to build something positive online. Their contributions becoming their digital footprint, consistently updating their “brand” which Patrick denotes as today’s resume.

Similar to student advantage #1, Larkin’s goal is to provide a social learning experience for leaders attending the pre-conference day on April 9th. High levels of engagement is common in classroom that promote collective learning opportunities. Larkin feels that educational leaders need to experience this social learning and echo it within the Professional Development they design for staff. His challenge for the day is for,“educational leaders need to come prepared to share, struggle, and think!”

When:  April 9, 2014 from 1pm – 4pm
Where Iowa Events Center
Cost:  $50 per participant (This fee is in addition to the regular conference fee)
Who:  School leaders – Principals, teachers in leadership positions, technology staff members, superintendents, or anyone in a leadership position