Blahg, Blahg, Blahg…

Don’t throw in the towel.

So little time. So much out there to read, investigate, take in digest. Not enough time.

I’ve been hearing the variations of the comment, “I can’t keep up” a lot lately.

One of my history professors in college told us that during the Renaissance it was humanly possible to read every book that had ever been written. Hence, it was easier to be a “Renaissance Man” because there simply wasn’t as much printed information and knowledge to digest.

I saw a statistic that almost 292,000 books were published in 2006 in the US alone. And that figure does not include the volumes of knowledge shared on the internet daily.

Maybe staying “current” is harder to do, but does that mean we give up under the weight of information? Do we simply give up?

I read a great post by Dean Shareski called “Go ahead, mark this as read”. In it Dean speaks of the angst people feel about “keeping up.”

I e-mailed Dean and shared how much I had enjoyed the post. He was kind enough to write back with another thought. He used the analogy of taking a trip when you don’t have a lot of time. Imagine you have four days to visit a major world city: New York, Paris, Tokyo, London…You choose the city. Could you possibly take in all there is to see in four days?

Of course not. So…Do you run yourself ragged trying to take in as much as you possibly can and not really understand what you’ve seen? Or do you go see a few things, really let them sink in, and enjoy the experience? It would definitely be sad for you to leave such a trip and say, “It was horrible, I didn’t get to see it all”. Or worse yet, do you say…”Ah, I’m not going. I can’t see it all so why bother.” Wouldn’t you want to value the four days you had?

Think about this for a second. Many people still get information in the more traditional form of magazine or paper subscriptions, correct? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say when the newspaper hits the porch, “Oh great, now there are 182 articles I have to read. How am I going to keep up?” When the magazine appears in the mailbox do you feel pressure and anxiety to read it from cover to cover? Or do you pick the articles you want to read and let the other ones go?

There definitely is a lot of information out there. More than we can all handle. Does that mean we don’t try to sift through and find what’s meaningful to us?

If you find a little time, these blogs might be useful.

Ideas and Thoughts: More Filtering. No not that kind of filtering.

Dangerously Irrelevant: Reclaiming my blog, reclaiming myself.

21st Century Learning: So Much to Say– So Little Time.

If you have even a few more minutes, read the comments. It’ll be worth it!

Kelly, Ashley, and the Human Touch

Last Friday my district had a Superintendent’s Conference Day. Much of the day focused on technology and the promotion of networked learning—using Web 2.0 tools to communicate and learn from those outside our district.

Some of the feedback from the day revealed a concern amongst teachers that online communication is inferior to direct contact. We may lose the “human touch” and that the connections made may not be as powerful.

I’d like to share two experiences I’ve had in the last two days.

Yesterday I read a post entitled “Kelly” on Pete Reilly’s blog EdTechJourneys. In it Pete reflects on an experience he had with a student thirty years ago and the lessons he learned. I was moved by his post and left a comment about how I had connected with his message. I checked on the post again today and saw that others had left comments about they were similarly touched by Pete’s story.

Today, via a feed on my Google Reader account, I learned of a speech given yesterday by Barack Obama The posts encouraged that I should listen to the 37 minute speech in its entirety. I found the speech on YouTube. I also found the full text of the speech on the Wall Street Journal’s site. I did listen to and read the entire speech and found it to be powerful and moving.

To me the most poignant part of the speech was the story of Ashley that Obama relates toward the end of the speech. (Minute 32:27 on YouTube). Again, I was moved.

Evidently the speech made an impact on others as well. So far there are 45 comments on the YouTube site and many many more on the Wall Street Journal site.

Please take a moment to consider that I would have not known of either of these stories had it not been for my online network. Consider too how powerful the “human touch” is in each of these instances.

A look at the Future…

 

The Brighton Teacher Center is very excited to announce the “soft launch” of Avatar. We want to introduce the software to you so you can register for breakout sessions on the March 14th Superintendent’s Conference Day.

This may be the first time many of you are hearing of Avatar. Well, what is it and why are we using it? To answer that, let me quickly explain the problems with our current registration system.

To date we have been using an Access database to store teacher’s professional development transcripts and to register teachers for classes. One major problem with this system is that it is not web-based. Only a very few people—myself and my secretary—can see what is in the database. We can only use the database when we are physically in the Teacher Center. This makes not only limits the time we can register people, but it also makes for a lot of complicated communications to and from our office.

For example, when we enter a class into the database, no one outside the Teacher Center can see the class. How do you register for a class that you don’t know about? This is why we have had to publish our paper “course catalog booklets”. This has some very serious drawbacks.

· We have to “input” data twice. Once into the database, and then again into the paper course booklet.

· We only “publish” a book a few times a year but classes are popping up all the time. Should I now e-mail you every time we add a class or should I wait for the next publication cycle of the booklet?

· We are killing a lot of trees.

· We still haven’t solved all the communication problems. Now you may know what the classes are, but you still have to register for them.

As it is now, if you want to register for a class you have to call or e-mail the Teacher Center. I, or my secretary, will take your request and enter it into our professional development database. Again, we are the only ones who have access to this database, and since it is not web-based, we only have access to it while we are physically in the Teacher Center. Once we enter your request we then must e-mail you back confirming your request. So, two e-mails generated for each request.

Now, lets consider an event such as the March 14th Superintendent’s Conference Day. We are going to need to register about 350 teachers and administrators. That would mean this office would need to handle approximately 700 e-mails for this one event alone. And that is assuming everything works out perfectly and everyone is able to get his or her first choice of classes.

Well what happens if a class has a ceiling or maximum number of participants? Under the current system, you—the user—have no way of knowing if a class has “maxed out” because you can’t see the database. If you unknowingly register for a class that has been closed out, we’ll have to contact you to let you know, and we begin the whole registration process over again.

Obviously there has to be a better way. AVATAR!

Avatar is a web-based professional development management system. You will now be able to connect to our database anytime and anywhere you have access to a computer with an internet connection.

If you want to register for a class at night after you’ve put your kids to bed…register!

If you have your laptop with you by the pool at the hotel in Florida…register for a class!

It its 4:28 am and you can’t fall back to sleep…register for a class!

I, for example, created all the classes for the Superintendent’s Conference Day from home. It was very nice not to be stuck in the office. I was able to do my work, but still hang out with my family and get household chores done.

You will now be able to see the descriptions of the classes that are offered.

You will be able to see how many people have registered for a class and if its closed or not.

You will be able to look at your own professional development transcript and confirm it is up to date.

Best of all, you will receive immediate feedback if your registration is accepted or not.

The system automatically generates confirmation e-mails and reminder e-mails for the classes you registered for.

We are introducing this software to you at this time to facilitate registering for the March 14th workshop day. We are calling this a “soft launch” because we are only scratching the surface of what Avatar can do. Consider it an introduction to the future.

A few thoughts on registering for the March 14th Superintendent’s Conference Day…I highly recommend you register your choices as soon as possible for two reasons.

1) You’ll be more likely to get your first choice of class if you are one of the first to register.

2) This will help us plan the facilities needed to accommodate all the class offerings.

I will let you all know when we are ready for a “hard launch”—when we are ready to completely switch over all registrations to the new system. You will be registering for late spring and summer classes using the new system. There will be more extensive training in how to use it.

For now though, I hope you enjoy a glimpse of our future.

What is our first step?

If you read edublogs then you likely have read about EduCon. Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy, hosted the conference and some of the “big” edubloggers have been reflecting on their experiences for quite a while. Check out these posts for a sampling:

Good Teaching Trumps Everything

Educon 2.0 – What is Student Voice

Picking Up the Conversation Where We Left Off

Recently Will Richardson has some written some posts asking how other schools begin to do the work that SLA is doing. What steps need to be taken first?

His questions got me thinking a lot about the district I work in. When I read descriptions of SLA, and all the twitter posts and blog posts I’ve read since the EduCon event ended, it sounds somewhat familiar to me.

My district, Brighton Central Schools, has a culture of caring and connectedness to an unbelievably supportive community. We have a tradition of academic excellence. We have skilled practitioners. We are very student focused. We empower our students and give them great opportunities to learn and grow. All of this has been going on for decades without a reliance on technology.

In recent years the district has invested a great deal in bringing technology into the schools. We are in the process of rolling out or looking at several new technologies including: an intranet, a web-based professional development registration system, an interactive curriculum-mapping tool (our current tool one is read only), and digital student portfolios.

While we have a lot of technology in place and we are getting better at using it everyday, I don’t think we’ve reached the transformation stage district wide. There are pockets here and there of early adopters who are starting to use the technology in transformative ways, but as a whole, I believe we continue to operate in a paper and pencil paradigm.

We may be a victim of our own success. We are doing so well in many regards that it is sometimes hard to argue for the need to change. Brighton High School was recently recognized as a Top 100 school by US News and World Report. Its not always easy to argue that we need to change when we are doing so well in so many facets.

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look too far to see an example of the danger of falling in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” trap. Brighton is a suburb of Rochester, home of the global headquarters of Kodak. Kodak is a very real example of what can happen when we fail to keep up with the times and embrace new technology. Once the world’s leader in film processing and film based photography, Kodak didn’t react to the digital revolution quickly enough. The company took a huge hit—with dramatic impact on the local economy—and has been struggling to recover it’s preeminent status ever since.

One of the many reasons our district is so successful is the hard work and dedication of our teachers. I’m truly fortunate to work with such dedicated and caring colleagues. Although we are all working very hard, I’m not sure we are working and learning as efficiently as we might.

New ideas and methods are introduced here frequently, as I’m sure happens in school districts everywhere. When new initiatives or ideas are rolled out, recently some initiatives involving technology, I’ve heard variations of: “My plate is already full”, “You can’t put 15 gallons in a 10 gallon container”, or “I can’t do x on top of what I’m already doing.”

I think this is where the technology can really be helpful to us. I know the way I learn has been transformed since learning about Web 2.0 tools. I’ve broken out my local “echo chamber” and am challenged by educators from around the nation and world. I have daily access to new views, thoughts, and ideas that challenge me in ways that I could not have foreseen even a few short months ago. (Hence this blog and this post)

I think, as professionals, we can collaborate and learn from one another much better than we currently do. I don’t know if we can work harder, but I think we can work smarter. We need to work with the willing and model what we want them to do.

We need to show the teachers, in a very personal way, the strength of the collaborative tools that are out there. When our teachers see their colleagues using these amazing tools in their classes, they will begin to see how engaging and transformative they can be. I think they will be challenged and start to question if our current methods of communication and collaboration are really good enough.

Learning to work in this new environment isn’t always easy, but I think its necessary. As Antonio Perez, CEO of Kodak, says “You know what happens if you sit back and let history happen to you, so you’ve got to take a shot…”

Are You An “Inny”? Or An “Outty”?

I’ve been thinking some more about this question of if we should establish clear standards in schools for Web 2.0 teaching or let teachers learn on their own, in a much less structured way via their own Personal Learning Communities.

So, I do a little more reading.  It seems my question is c

ouched in a larger conversation that lots of people have been commenting on.  Can we fix what is broken about our current schools from within, or is it better to think of a whole new paradigm and start afresh?

Here are some takes on the issue that I’ve read and would like to share. The posts, and the comments that follow them go into great depth.  More than I can try to summarize here. If you’re interested in this conversation its worth it to read them through.

Chris Lehmann:  What Is Public Education?  This was Chris’ reaction to…

Will Richardson’s: Some New Years’ Dreaming   and…

Clay Burrell’s:  On Leaving Teaching to Become a Teacher

I also came across Dina Strasser’s  In or Out? (Long Philosophical Ramble #1) 

(Dina, I started a draft of this post before I saw your title.  Great minds?)

What I’ve taken from these comments is that, I’m an “inny”.  

I subscribe to a lot of Chris Lehmann’s sentiments.  I’m not ready to abandon the system we have now.  I’d rather work from within to make it better.  Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.  It’s also easy to say “let’s work within the system” for someone who is blessed to work in a public school district that is working very well…but is striving always to improve.

I particularly liked when Chris said to Will and Clay,  “We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  Reminds me of a Sting lyric…”To search for perfection is all very well, but to look for heaven is to live here in hell.” 

I’m not suggesting that by establishing standards and clearly stating expectations that I’m endorsing an authoritarian “one size fits all” type system that will crush creativity.  I’d bet a company like Pixar expects–even demands–creativity,  imagination, and ingenuity from all its employees.  Does setting an expectation necessarily mean killing creative thinking? 

Is it impossible to imbibe our current schools with thinking modeled by Will and Clay on a wide scale?  Is it too much to expect such thinking?  Are our schools so restrictive that the ideas of “standards and universal expectations” and “individuality and passion” are diametrically opposed to one another?

Looking for some focus.

Seeking Clarity

Reading is great.  I’ve been doing a lot of blog reading lately.  (See my blogroll).

Reflecting is great.  I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. 

Time to do some writing.  I feel like Rob Gordon in High FideltyI’m a professional appreciator, but I haven’t put anything out there yet for others to read and hopefully reflect on.  

One thing I’ve been mulling over in my brain is the difference between establishing standards for learning and the less structured personal learning that goes on via the internet.

On one hand I definitely see the wisdom of Will Richardson’s idea that it’s okay to be selfish.  He wrote in a fairly recent post

Well, that’s the “different” approach I’ve been taking of late with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, whose knowledge and passion for this work I grow to respect more each day. Working off of the model Sheryl helped develop in Alabama, we’re currently in the midst of six-month long professional development programs with a couple of hundred educators from around the country, leading them through a process that we hope will allow these concepts and skills to really take root in their own learning practice. And it is focused on their own learning, not teaching, not classrooms, not kids. That’s hugely important to us, that these educators be selfish about the learning. No doubt, many of them struggle to approach this process with anything but a teaching lens. But both Sheryl and I feel strongly that what will really create meaningful change in schools and classrooms are teachers who personally understand the potentials of these connections. Already, the most powerful piece of these cohorts to me is that in the process, we’re collectively beginning to build the relationships and share contextualized experiences “that create emergent knowledge that is the basis of education.” The connections are deepening.”

I’m a member of the long term PD Will refers to, and I can attest to the dramatic impact it has had on my personal thinking and learning.  At times I’m in total agreement with that philosophy.  But then again…

What about the people who don’t have access to this type of PD?   Is it okay that they are not onboard?  And what about the people who have had access to this type of PD, but haven’t caught on yet.  Is that acceptable?

It seems to me that that we need to establish a clear continuum for adult learning, in which people can see the whole process laid out in front of them, can clearly identify where they are in the continuum or process, and know what steps they must take to get to the next level.

I’ve been reading a lot of Rick Stiggins’ stuff lately. He argues that students remain engaged and interested in their education when they know what they’ve learned, where they are in a continuum, what comes next, and how to get there. He believes that a lot of the turn off and disconnect with education is that students don’t really understand what it is that they are supposed to know or how to get there.

We’ve been talking a lot in the Teacher Center about establishing “programs” rather than classes. I think when we’ve put out our professional development course offerings there have essentially been a lot of classes, but they are necessarily linked to one another, and certainly aren’t formatted in any sort of progression. They are single “sit and gets” rather than introduction, development, review, etc… As such I think it would be hard for a teacher to know exactly where they are in their learning. It would be even harder for an adminstrator to know where their teachers are. With so many people taking a “scattered” or “shot gun” approach to their adult learning, can we ever evaluate where someone is in a particular skill or process.

But is mandatory, or even co-erced PD,  the answer either?   Consider Pete Reilly’s post Is Mandating Technology Use Enough?    Here’s a little snipet…

Will simply requiring teachers to use technology tools transform teaching and learning? What real change can we expect when we put technology tools in the hands of these teachers?

Mr. Total Control
Miss Overly Structured
Mrs. Entertains from the Front of the Class
Mr. Blame the Kids
Miss Low Expectations
Mrs. No Confidence No Control
Mr. Content Is All That Counts
Miss NCLB Scores
Mrs. Teach to the Middle
Miss Boring
Mr. Lack of Preparation
Miss I Don’t Have Time for Questions
Mrs. Because I Said So
Mr. I’m Totally Overwhelmed

I really think we need to establish some standards.   I think there needs to be some agreement about the direction we are heading.  If someone opts off the path or gets lost, at least we’ll have some idea of how to bring them along.   If there is no “path” then how do we move forward as a group? 

All this leaves me wishing I had a little more focus.  Nothing’s clear to me yet.

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