A chat between two educators….

What do two educators chat about online in their spare time, from opposite sides of the globe? Here’s a transcript of a conversation I had on a lazy Sunday morning with Stephen Davis, a thoughtful middle school teacher in Orange County, California. We have previously collaborated via our blogs in Bridging the Primary/Middle School Gap. Our conversation is cross-posted at Steve’s blog Rush The Iceberg.

Stephen: Hello!
Edna: I seem to have abandoned ‘Teacher’s Desk
I keep forgetting… my new job is so hectic.
How are you and your family?
Stephen: No worries I have been neglecting it, too. I have about three or four desks I need to update!
Are you enjoying your new job? To what extent is it fulfilling vs. your previous job? Or, are they both fruit and you like both an apple and an orange?!?!
Family is great! Wifey is a little tired due to baby #2 (Casen Patrick) growing inside her, but she is handling it beautifully!
Edna: Oh that’s lovely to hear.
Job… hmm…
The first few months I wasn’t enjoying as much as teaching.
Now I am more into it and like working with the teachers too.
And I’m going back to teaching a little so that’s better!
Stephen: Yeah…those first few months did you regret your decision?
Edna: Not really, I know it takes time… but I need to teach kids
Stephen: How much teaching (kids) are you able to do now? Daily?
Edna: I’m going to teach 4 lessons formally a week, but I do some team teaching and work with other teachers
Stephen: What’s the biggest challenge now?
Edna: Shifting teachers’ thinking!
Is this an interview?!!
Just kidding… thanks for your interest
Stephen: LOL! 🙂 Just questions that have been on my mind!
Take a look at www.rushtheiceberg.com
The Writing Process and Science
Edna: In the PYP we say that all teachers are language teachers… your post fits with that idea. I like this: ‘I firmly believe there is much to learn about the art and craft of teaching by watching/reading teachers from across content areas and grade levels’.
It makes for excellent teaching and learning…
The idea that learning is subdivided into separate content boxes is ridiculous in reality.
Stephen: I agree…I want to learn more from teachers about their content and what influences them…
I’m tired, really tired, of educational philosophy dressed up as dogma…
Stephen: The last two weeks I have participated in the #mathchat on Twitter…it has been educational, enlightening, and enriching! Challenging, too!
Edna: Trans-disciplinary learning. Same expectations for students?
Stephen:Yes, same expectations for students…I want them to see their world as blurred, not compartmentalized…more like a frozen dinner than a Bento box…
Edna: Excellent!
Stephen:I’m also growing tired of teachers only tweeting/RTing the same few teachers…
Edna: So do you think on twitter that people often RT by name, rather than by value of what’s being said?
Stephen: Absolutely! I think many of them are trying to benefit off of doing that somehow…
Edna: Maybe you should follow some different sorts of people!
You can follow my PYP list… some different people there…
I guess everyone has their own motivations for twitter. I tend to ignore the parts that irritate me.
I read what I like. I tweet what I like.
Stephen: Yeah! I get that irony…I think the edutweeps have reached a ceiling…meaning, I think we have reached a point where everyone is echoing, echoing each other instead of progressing past…plus, progress is not always addition…
Going to your PYP list now! Who, not just on your list, is really interesting/challenging you on twitter lately?
Edna: I disagree with your use of the word ‘we’!
@sherrattsam is an awesome educator
He really understands learning and he writes great stuff, even his class blog.
@librareanne is an excellent librarian who tweets great links
Stephen: I’m ok w/ disagreeing on ‘we’, probably should have used ‘many’ because, I agree, there are ‘many’ that are doing great things!
Edna: These PYP teachers often share great links
@ jessievaz12 and @surreallyno
It’s better not to be part of a ‘specific group’ I think, just open to learning from everyone
Am I being teacherish? 🙂
Stephen: You are a teacher! Teacherish is fine! Any non-education recs? Books…
Edna: I only do teacher people on twitter I think
Oh books, yes
I love the visible thinking stuff…
Have you read Ron Ritchhart’s Intellectual Character? and he has a new book out Making Thinking Visible.
Oh, non-education you said!! non-edu I read mainly fiction!
What kind of fiction do you like?
Stephen: Re: fiction – Robin Sloan is great… I try to read the books my 13 year old students are reading…I tend to read much, much more non-fiction than anything!
Edna: This is one of Sam Sherratt’s blogs http://artoflanguage.wordpress.com/ and this one http://timespacelearn.wordpress.com/
I just read Richard Zimler’s latest book
Stephen: http://longform.org  has curated many great articles from a variety of print sources that I read through my Instapaper account…
Edna: Have you read any of Zimler’s books?
I loved this one..
Stephen: Nope! But I just looked up the Art of Language on the Kindle shop! I love the thinking/mind maps project out of Harvard you turned me on to!
Btw, this is exactly what I envision my ‘interviews/conversations’ to be!
Edna: I know. I love one on one conversations about books and learning, but not so keen on interviews.
I don’t want to be a ‘celebrity.
Stephen: Well…being on my blog in an interview will not make you a celebrity! You have significantly more readers than I do! 🙂
Edna: I recall you were one of the first people to encourage me in early blogging days
Thank you.
Stephen: I also just put the two sites you rec into my RSS feed…
Edna: Is http://www.openculture.com/ in your reader? always interesting clips and things to make you think..
Stephen: I like  http://kottke.org/ (kind of tech focused, but other stuff, too…)
http://snarkmarket.com/ talks about culture, design, books, news, cities, movies, the future and the present…
Edna: Thanks!
Stephen: http://robertogreco.tumblr.com/ A good friend’s site who does much curation and finds many wonderful nuggets! He teaches at an independent progressive school…
Edna: You can use the transcript of this conversation to write the interview, then I won’t have to do a video interview 🙂
Actually that was a joke but now has me thinking…
Stephen: I would love to use it…with your permission…of course!
Edna: It could be a series…
What do 2 educators, from different places, different backgrounds, different teaching areas, different ages… chat about online in their spare time?
Stephen: That would be awesome!


A Teacher’s Story

In this guest post, Michael Graffin , a young Australian teacher, shares his story…

A life journey begins …

About seven years ago, I was the Year 12 Academic Dux of my school, and I had no idea about what I wanted to do with my life. My teachers wanted me to become an engineer. My parents thought I’d make a good teacher.

My journey began as a work-experience student at my local primary school, where an encounter with one particular child would change the course of my life. This child wasn’t the nicest, brightest or most well-behaved kid in the class. He was small, academically weak, and not particularly well-behaved. Unfortunately, his teacher’s management approach consisted of yelling and sending him to time-out in the storage alcove at the back of the class, his “second home”.

Even then, this struck a nerve; and I made a point of working with this kid in his little time-out space. To this day, I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as I helped him with his maths. At that point, I knew: I was going into teaching to help those troubled children who other teachers had given up on.

I was only 17, and I was going to be a teacher. Little did I know …

I excelled in my university studies, yet I entered teaching ill-equipped to cope with the practical realities of teaching. While I took steps to rectify my glaring weaknesses, more than anyone will ever know, I spent my first year and a half of teaching feeling disillusioned, bitter, incompetent and isolated.

Things got better …

I was a relief  teacher – free to learn from my mistakes, develop my classroom management skills, and take risks in my teaching. It wasn’t an easy road – I got knocked around on many occasions, but I came to appreciate the opportunity to observe and reflect on experienced teachers’ practice in different schools.

But they haven’t always gone to plan …

I was appointed to my very first class – without warning, on the first day of the 2011 school year. Sadly, the position lasted a mere six days. There was a staffing reallocation, and my class, ‘Room 11’, was no more. My students were split up, and I was moved into a temporary, eclectic teaching and support role.

It took me a long time to recover from this crushing disappointment, but I became a stronger, more mature teacher for the experience. I may not have had my ‘own’ class, but for the first time in my life, I felt like a teacher. I had my staff badge, my own keys, and the freedom to quietly experiment with ICT. I wasn’t an outsider. I was part of a community.

I’ve learnt and been through so much, and I’m moving on …

My journey wasn’t meant to be easy. It’s been one wild ride. Yet, with the grace of God, I’m still here. I’m not quitting. Why should I?  My experiences have helped me better appreciate my family and my PLN (Personal Learning Network).

Now, after rediscovering my passion for teaching, I take a great deal of comfort from @coolcatteacher’s recent reflections:  

The greatest teachers often have the greatest obstacles to overcome. The greatest shames … You don’t really see the pain. You don’t [see] the heartache …. as they experience their own humiliation and failure. They are there.  

I know.  I see it.  I feel it.  I refuse to believe it is all for nothing.

One day, I will teach a class of my own. For now, it’s time to move on.

Perhaps, one day, I will become a great teacher.  I certainly hope so.

Michael blogs at A Relief Teacher’s Journey.


Changing school culture…

How can school culture be changed?  This huge question was asked by Tyler Rice and I expressed my thoughts in a letter to Tyler posted a week or so ago. He replied in a post on his blog and I have been thinking all week about how to respond.

Dear Tyler

You raise some huge issues which I understand must be all-consuming in a setting such as yours.  As you know, my experience in education has been very different from yours and I wouldn’t even presume to try to address these:  ‘How are failing schools turned around?’ and ‘What shifts take place that prepare kids for a life beyond high school while also keeping them in school?’

I’ll attempt to answer the question you’re specifically asking me... how to go about creating learning principles that are the ‘right’ principles while also getting all teachers to buy in? We know you can’t force people to buy in to anything. So, how do you get everyone on the same page?”

Start small. Influencing culture and instigating change is a very, very slow process.  Don’t even try to shift the people you can’t change (yet?)

Collaborate with a handful of teachers who share your beliefs (even if there are only two of you! ) Focus on the students. Focus on the learning. Explore the learning principle that really resonates with you,  that ‘Learning takes place through inquiry’. I know you have had success in this area already and I know you realise the value of reflection along the way and of including students in the reflection processs. But I strongly suggest you don’t try to persuade your ‘textbook teachers’ to make a drastic shift into inquiry-learning  in one leap.

Work with those who are even slightly open to change. Establish a small group of people who will at least talk and listen. Agree on one or two learning principles that you share, such as ‘ Everyone learns in different ways’ and Learners need to feel secure in order to learn. Unpack these to see what they might look like in practice within your school context and what steps might lead towards their meaningful implementation. Create an atmosphere of trust. Build a common language. Have one conversation at a time. Recognise people’s issues, fears and concerns and make sure they know they are being heard.

Take it slowly. It might take some time before you are ready to explore inquiry learning as an option with this group. It should follow on from the one or two principles you have already established. Student centred learning is really hard for people who are entrenched in the ‘teacher is the boss of learning‘ way of thinking. You need to go very slowly, demonstrate one little aspect of letting go, at a time. Use the gradual release of responsibility (model, share, guide, apply) without any judgement.

Try and get admin involved, without them feeling they are responsible for change. Show them what the core group is achieving with one student, in one classroom at a time. Try and get them to work and learn with you in the second group.

Empathise. Remember that we teachers are not that different from our students. We all learn in different ways, are at different levels of understanding and experience, come from different backgrounds, have our own issues.  Like with our students, if we want to instigate change,  first we need to form relationships, understand where individual teachers are at, what baggage they bring, how they learn best, what their passions are.

I really have no idea if my suggestions will work in your context, but I hope you will find something useful that you can apply. Thanks for the opportunity to think this through for myself, as much as for you!

By the way, I loved  your overarching question: ‘ How do we honor the uniqueness of every student while ensuring that each is developing a skill set and knowledge base that will prepare them for higher learning and responsible, informed citizenship?’  Isn’t this the question every single educator should be asking themselves every single day? Don’t we address some aspect of it in every unit we plan, in every lesson we teach, in every relationship we form with our students, in every decision we make in our schools



Connecting the dots…

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the demands of teaching?  Does it sometimes feel as if there isn’t space in your head for more ideas, programs, strategies and tools? It might help to spend some time thinking about how the seemingly disparate parts are connected…

We met yesterday to start some dialogue about how best to synthesise the parts. The aim was to promote thinking  to assist team leaders in supporting their teams in connecting the dots.

Each person received a puzzle piece with one aspect of their teaching and completed the puzzle as a group.

But there’s more… How can we fit all these pieces into the puzzle?

Teachers chose to work on the next stage independently, so as to allow for individual thinking first. The task was to think of all the ‘parts’ and to create a visualisation of how they fit together. It was interesting to see how varied our visualisations were. One started with the child in the centre and everything else leading off that. One started with herself, the teacher, at the centre. Another put everything down in list form without connecting them at all initially. Some examples (not all completed)…

The ensuing conversation was really good. People willingly shared their personal challenges, their understanding of how the parts connect and their ideas for managing both themselves and their teams. There was a great deal of trust evident in the session. I won’t breech that by sharing specifics of the conversation…



Has your educational philosophy changed?

Brian Barry is a teacher in Nunavut, Canada. I know what he believes about teaching and learning and he knows my beliefs, although we have never met. We have read each other’s blogs and exchanged ideas on Twitter. One of my favourite posts from his blog was one in which he asked teachers to think about what’s important, in the interest of letting go and allowing students to take control. I’ve used it in PD sessions with teachers at my school.

Brian has a fascinating series happening on his blog at the moment, in which he has been interviewing educators around the world about their experience and beliefs.  Some are well known personalities, others are members of  his personal learning network, and it’s interesting to read what’s important to them. Since I was included in his series, I thought I’d invite him to answer the same questions for my blog…

How long have you been teaching?

I am in my 12th year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. I have taught Grades 4 (4 years), 7 (2 years), 8 (2 years), 9 (4 years).

Has your educational philosophy changed since you began teaching?

Yes. It used to be based on extrinsic motivation. I used rewards and punishment to control students. Now it is based on intrinsic motivation. I try to tap into my students natural curiosity. Their motivation now comes from within (intrinsic). They control themselves, not me controlling them.

Has Twitter played a role in your evolution as a teacher? If so, how?

Indeed. It has helped me grow by making connections with teachers of like mind. Moreover, I have connected with teachers that have changed my mind on specific topics.

What’s the best advice you have received as a teacher (or can give to a new teacher)?

Teaching is all about students and not subjects. That means it is about relationship building. Get to know your students; ask them plenty of questions about themselves. The rest will follow.

As I write this post, I realise that strangely, I know less about some of the teachers in my own school than I do about Brian, or many other educators whose blogs I read regularly. So, if you teach at my school (and if you don’t) I invite you to reflect on the questions above and answer them in a comment. There’s so much to learn…

My answers are here.


10 steps to successful tech integration…

It’s an expectation that every class at my school will have a blog by the end of this year. We thought it best to invite people to start when they are ready, offering individual support as required. We’re only three weeks into our school year and it’s exciting to note how many teachers already have blogs up and running, even if some are still at the stage of learning how to post. It was also great, during planning sessions last week, to hear several previously tech-resistant teachers suggesting ways to incorporate new tools to support learning. While we still have a long way to go before technology is seamlessly integrated into the learning throughout our primary school, it’s encouraging to realise how far we have come.

Here are some tips, based on our experience:

1.  Start with two people.

Ideally you need a technology facilitator and another teacher whose focus is more on learning and pedagogy. That way, it’s never lonely when there’s resistance, there are complementary outlooks and more hands are available to help.

2. Invite volunteers.

Don’t try and force anyone to implement technology before they are ready. Work with a small group who’s willing to give it a go. Gradually others will come on board, when they see what’s been achieved by their peers or when their students initiate it. Don’t even think about presenting tech PD to large group of teachers all at once.

3. Offer plenty of support.

Once teachers have seen a tool demonstrated, they will need support practicing and applying it. Don’t be judgmental. Differentiate. Everyone can learn, but we all learn in different ways and at our own pace. It looks like thisAllow for it. Team teach. Offer to go into a class with a teacher who’s ready to give it a go. Demonstrate. Solve problems. Be there.

4. Aim for ‘just one thing’.

Don’t expect teachers to be experts. They just need to be willing. Make them aware of that. Aim to get teachers to try just one new thing. The concept is expressed really well here!

5. Get teachers teaching teachers.

Once teachers have used a tool to enhance learning in their classes, provide an opportunity for them to show others what they did. Have a show-and-tell session where ideas and examples are presented by teachers for teachers. Invite teachers to show others how to use tools they have already mastered.

6. Start from the learning.

This one is the most important. Tech for tech’s sake is a waste of time. Teachers are far more likely to integrate technology if they see the educational purpose. Begin with your learning goal, then plan your learning experiences and see what tools might support or enahnce the learning. See an example here.

7. Bring Admin onside.

If the heads are not leading the way themselves, invite them to training sessions. Invite them to classes. Show them what’s happening. Talk about what’s possible. Tell them what you need in order to move the school forward. Share examples from other schools. Share examples from yours.

8. Involve the students.

Teachers don’t need to know how to do everything. Kids will readily and enthusiastically help both the teacher and each other. Encourage teachers to release control to their students and become learners themselvesHere’s one teacher’s take on it.

9. Follow-up.

Create a wiki for teachers to refer back to. Add the tools they have learned. Include examples of how the tools can be used for learning. Add written instructions to which they can refer back if they are stuck. This is our wiki, maintained by the inimitable Linda (@lindawollan)

10. Be persistent.

Never miss an opportunity to suggest a way in which technology could enhance the learning. Offer to take care of the tech side yourself, if it means teachers will try something new in their teaching. Never, ever give up.


If it works for us…

As an educator, what’s the most valuable kind of PD been for you? In what context has your most meaningful or most exciting learning taken place?

Reflecting on my own professional learning in recent times and considering what was most effective for me, has made me think… If it works for us, it should work for them.

The most valuable learning for me has been through:

1. Blogging

Writing a blog has been a tool for synthesising my thoughts, clarifying my ideas and reflecting on my practice. Commenting on other blogs and responding to comments on my own has allowed me to engage in professional dialogue.

2. Following my passions

I love technology and the possibilities it opens up for flattening classroom walls.  I have spent the past year experimenting with ways to make it happen across the school and learned a huge amount in the process.

3. Collaboration

Collaborating with my online PLN in a variety of ways has supported my learning in so many ways. I have an in-school PLN too and we achieve our best thinking and learning when we work together.

4. Global connections

The benefits of  learning from and with interesting people around the globe are immeasurable. My learning is enriched by interactions, through Twitter, blogs and Skype, with people of other cultures, different backgrounds and varied interests.

5. Owning my learning

My most valuable learning has been in areas I have chosen, not via any compulsory staff PD. We’re making sure all staff PD for next year is based on choice.

6. Knowing why

Related to the one above,  starting from the ‘why, rather than ‘what’ or ‘how” makes all the difference to learning. Matching learning to goals and interests means getting much more out of it.

7. Meaningful feedback

Sharing my learning with colleagues at school and a global audience on my blog has meant opportunities for specific feedback to push my thinking forward and help me decide where to take my learning next.

8. Not sticking to the job description (curriculum)

I have learned a huge amount in the past few years by using my initiative to explore new possibilities and create my own opportunities. If I had limited myself to what was expected, I wouldn’t have moved forward in the ways I have.

9. Being curious

Asking questions. Experimenting with new ideas. Seeking information. Making new connections. Being open-minded.

10. Focusing on learning, not on teaching

The more I have focused on learning, both my own and that of my students, the better my teaching has become. It’s that simple.

If these are the factors that have enhanced my own learning, shouldn’t I be providing my students with exactly the same sorts of learning opportunities? Shouldn’t we all?

Just a teacher…

Yesterday I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen for twenty years and she asked the predictable question: ‘ Are you still teaching?’ I am indeed. And still learning too.

Just a teacher..
By whatedsaid | View this Toon at ToonDoo | Create your own Toon

To be fair, she probably visualises a classroom of the sort in which she learned, with a teacher standing at the front droning on, possibly delivering the same lesson as last year and the year before and the fifteen years prior to that. She wouldn’t even begin to understand how much teaching and learning have changed…

She could never imagine the sort of class where students compose raps and create movies to explain their understanding of photosynthesis. She would be amazed to hear that an ‘Aspergian’ student can investigate how Aspergers affects people and get feedback from educators all over the world. She would have no idea that classroom walls can be flattened either, so that learning about other cultures can be enriched by live interactions on Skype with people worldwide. The amount of choice students are given in order to encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning would stun her. Kids didn’t participate in discussions about the goals of education and the relevance of standardized tests, when she went to school!

But more than any of those things.. when she asks if I am still teaching, she cannot possibly have any idea how exciting it is to be part of a community of learners, constantly sharing practice, investigating ideas and exploring new tools to enhance and support our students’ learning. If only she could have attended our professional development day and seen the passion of teachers teaching teachers, she would know better than to ask her question in that slightly disdainful way ever again.


Glass half full…

This morning I read @davidwees’s well written, sad but true, post entitled A Day in the Life of a Student. From that child’s perspective, school is a pointless and unrewarding experience. And yes, we need to work hard to change that model of school. But school doesn’t have to look like that. My inspiration for this post comes from some of the wonderful bloggers who share their practice generously with the world…

A ( different) day in the life of a student…

I wake up in the morning earlier than I want to. I’d rather stay in bed… but wouldn’t everyone? Once fully awake though, I remember some of the  exciting things happening at school and feel more positive about the day ahead.

I arrive at school and jostle through the over crowded hallway to get to Mr Rice’s science class. I  look forward to science because Mr Rice has a way of hooking me in with a provocation that gets my imagination going. He asks questions that get me thinking of even more questions, rather than answers. I love the way he gives us plenty of time to gather materials and find things out for ourselves, but helps us figure out stuff if we need him. I always know if I’m on the right track because he gives me constructive, explicit feedback. Today we’re playing with cornstarch and water to see what happens and I’m so engaged in my learning that I don’t even notice when the bell goes!

You wouldn’t believe it, but my next class is ‘show and tell’. I haven’t done that since I was 7! Mr Spencer is an awesome writer and genuinely caring person, not just a teacher. He really listens to what we say, but more than that, he hears what I don’t say too. Bringing something personal for today’s class is an opportunity to give something of myself in a secure setting. I can tell that Mr Spencer cares about what I’ve brought and wants to know more about why I’ve chosen it, which makes it a little easier to open up and share something so personal with the whole class. I know it’s helping him see me as a whole person with a story of my own.

I have a math test in my next class. I usually hate tests because learning is collaborative and suddenly they expect you to do everything on your own. Sometimes I panic because they say the grades are important and so I forget things I actually knew how to do. It’s different in Mr Lee’s class because of the Twitter back-channel. I look forward to tests! We use our handheld devices to communicate with each other if we need some support. Sounds like cheating doesn’t it? But it isn’t really, because math is not about getting an answer, it’s about a process. Collaboration is a key part of functioning in society today after all, and memorization isn’t.

I’m taking my lunch to Ms Miller’s Bloggers Cafe. She knows I have better things to do after school, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to write. Blogging helps me reflect on my learning and Ms Miller says I’m developing my writing skills. Reading blogs by students around the world gives me a better understanding of other people and other cultures.  But the most motivating thing of all is to find comments on my posts, written by people I don’t even know yet. Knowing I have a real live audience makes me want to write more and more.

It’s easy to forget that my next class takes place in a room with four walls. We use Skype with Ms Tolisano to learn from and with other teachers and learners around the world. This makes learning really meaningful. I mean, it’s not like teachers know everything there is to know and this is the 21st century, so why not communicate with people out there in every way that’s possible? For our research into Christopher Columbus, she called for ‘experts’ worldwide to Skype with us,  teachers and classes of all ages and backgrounds, to help us gain the broadest perspective possible. Who would have thought learning could be so cool?

I could go on and on. There are enough innovative teachers out there doing brilliant things to fill thousands of blog posts every day.

Educational reform? One passionate teacher at a time.