29 January 2010

EduCon 2.2 - So Much to Learn in So Little Time

This weekend I have the fortunate opportunity to attend the EduCon 2.2 Conference this weekend in Philadelphia, PA.  I will be traveling there with a colleague of mine and my school was nice enough to pay for most of the costs of the conference.  I see this as a sign that my school is willing to make the changes needed to move our school into the 21st century.  Also, I hope the conference, the networking and conversations held there will give me new ideas and insight into the changes we need to be making.

First, EduCon is not a "technology conference," (although technology is a big part of it) but rather it is a place for innovation in education.  As the axioms state:
  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked
These principles give a clear way forward on talking about education in the 21st century and how we bring about change and reform.

For those of you who cannot attend, you can follow and participate in the conference through Twitter by following the hashtag #educon or through Elluminate which will be providing live streams of all 76 sessions or "conversations."

My biggest problem is deciding which conversations to attend.  So many look really good.  The great thing about them being streamed through Elluminate is that they can be accessed later.  At this point, here are my top sessions I hope attend or view later (but these could change once we arrive!).  If you follow the links you can get more information about the sessions and how to follow on Elluminate.
  • Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency - Tinkering is a time honored way to learn, invent, and innovate. Yet in schools, tinkering is viewed as wasted time, while instead we teach students to make, do, and invent using rigid procedures with tight timelines. How can we bring the creative benefits of tinkering back to the classroom?  
  • Teaching Big Ideas to 21st Century Learners through collaboration, innovation, and differentiation - Presented by a Program Consultant and Classroom Teacher from Ontario - Come see the power of a collaborative and engaging online learning environment that meets the needs of 21st Century learners in elementary and middle schools.  
  • Thinking Creatively: Inventing the Possible - If schools kill creativity, then what hope do we have of helping our students be prepared to devise creative and imaginative solutions to problems in their futures? Come examine frameworks for thinking and working creatively. Explore and experience creativity, innovation, and imagination in action. Reframe your problems into opportunities
  • 21st Century Classrooms or 21st Century Learning? - We've all been encouraged to build a 21st century classroom full of cool technology tools and gadgets, yet many have witnessed the underwhelming change these tools have brought to student learning. Why is that? We'll explore this dilemma as we work collaboratively to clarify a vision and a process for creating digital age learning environments.
  • Educational Commissioning and Project Based Learning - What if school wasn't just like real life, what if it just was real life? - Why we attend school, what we accomplish while we are here, how we spend our time; these are the issues I would like to investigate as we consider how to make 'school' more about meaningful and enriching life experiences, and less like hoop jumping and necessary evil.
  • Best Practices: Project-Based Learning in Forward-Thinking Schools - Explore project based learning using real examples of projects from two different non-traditional urban high schools. We'll discuss the characteristics of a good project and share strategies for designing projects to maximize student learning and engagement. 
  • The Democratization of the Classroom in the 21st Century - The intention of this workshop is to explore how the ideal of more democratic and progressive classrooms might look today in light of 1:1 computing, networked communication and other tools that might be available. 
  • Rethinking Portfolios - Portfolios can be used to document the process of learning, and to document what has been learned. In this conversation, we will look at how these two facets of learning can be mutually supportive. Moreover, we will look at portfolios as tools for student learning and teacher professional development.
Again, EduCon promises to be a really great experience.  You can follow me via my Twitter feed and I will blog about my experiences as soon as possible.

27 January 2010

Netbooks in the Classroom - Part 2

I blogged last week about the acquisition and use of a small set of class netbooks in my Social Studies classroom thus far this year.  The students really seem to enjoy using them in class and request them on a regular basis (they far enjoy using them and working with others in comparison to listening to me lecture, and I don't blame them).  But, as I said in my last post, I wanted to move beyond using the netbooks on a "one-off" basis for completing Google Docs organizers and answering questions on the class blog.  I want the students to go further with what they can do with easy access to the web and the abiltity to collaborate and create.

As a result, with two of the courses (a total of four sections) thatr I teach (I have three preps this year) I am moving to a more project based approach beginning with the second semester which started for us this week.  For my seniors who take my Modern World History 1945 to the Present course, I have begun a project with them where they will look at the problems and successes of development in six different regions of the world.  The student will use a class Ning to for their project linked to Google Docs to create a research page, outline, and presentation.  The presentation will then be uploaded to VoiceThread for the creators and rest of the student in the class to comment and question about the issues presented.  There will then be a final assessment at the end to analyze patterns of development around the world. 

My sophomores, who take World Civilization 1450 to 1950, will begin a similar project using a class Ning and Google Docs for their collaboration and research in groups.  But the topic and final product will be different.  They will research different political, economic and cultural ideas that were developed during the 19th century and how those ideas still affect us today.  They will use their research to make a documentary segment on their topic.  They will then work with all the other groups to make one extensive video on the topics presented.

In both cases, I believe this will be much more engaging and benefitial to the students instead of me lecturing to them over the next month on the same topics and issues.  I worked with our school's media specialist to get the students using the right kind of reseources, but a major focus of the projects is using the netbooks in the classroom for research, planning and writing, so we do not need to go to the media center or lab as often.  I will keep you, my readers, informed to the successes and pitfalls of my new approach.  Until next time, keep moving forward!

14 January 2010

Netbooks in the Classroom - Part 1

As part of the evolution of my teaching, I have been looking for ways for my students to become more connected with learning in the classroom using technology.  At the end of last school year I requested a small class set of netbooks for this school year.  I didn't necessarily want the computers on an 1 to 1 ratio since I wanted the students working cooperatively face to face as well as online.  The twelve were delivered to me at the end of the summer and I set up a mobile lab for use with my classes (I teach in several different rooms, and I also wanted them to be available to other teachers.) by placing the netbooks on a cart with several power-strips.

Initially, I struggled a little trying to find good uses for the hardware (mainly due to the hectic nature of the beginning of the school year, I didn't have a lot of time to sit down and think about how to use them.)  But, as the school year progressed, I began experimenting with them more and more.  The two easiest ways I found to plug them into my classrooms were to use them with my class blog and Google Docs.

With my class blog, instead of having to make all then assignments done there as homework (which I had done previously due to a lack of computer availability), students could use the netbooks to post to the blog.  I would give them some primary source documents and/or video to view and they could work (in pairs) to answer questions and respond to each other's posts.  This was a great way to then foster further discussion on the topics in class.

The second way I have been using them involved Google Docs.  Students would work in groups of three or four to complete an online graphic organizer on the topic we were investigating.  In each group there would be two netbooks, one would be used to post the group's research to the shared document, while the other was used to conduct research using my website, other links, and web searches.  The third person in the group would add information using a traditional source like our textbook or a printed primary source document.  In this way, the students were creating a collaborative document with all of their knowledge that they could then later print out at home.  A similar process could have taken several days of class (where this took only one) and not gotten as good results. (see a very rough video of one of my classes made with our recently acquired Flip camera below)

Despite this major success, much of what I was doing with my classes with the netbooks was limited to single day exercised with little follow up or expansion.  So as part of my push to create a more authentic, project-based, critical thinking learning environment in my classroom I have rethought my use of netbooks as well.  Beginning students in one of my classes began a major project using Ning, Google Docs, and VoiceThread.  They will be using the netbooks for a major part of this project.  More on that in Part 2 of this posting.

If anyone else would like to share ideas for using a small set of netbooks in the classroom I would love to hear your ideas.

08 January 2010

Where I've Been and Where We're Going.

Over the past several years I have made a conscious effort to bring more and more innovating teaching and learning to my students on a regular basis. Much of that has centered around the introduction and usage of digital and web 2.0 technologies into my classroom practices. In some ways this has been quite successful, but not in all cases.

When I first began teaching a decade ago, the availability of technology in the classroom was still relatively limited. At the same time, the technologies for students online were limited to mostly to research through static websites, databases and online encyclopedias. The opportunities to interact and create with technology were just beginning to emerge.

Like any forward-thinking teacher during that time, I had my ups and downs with my teaching style and the integration of technology into that. I (like many) gravitated to the digital projector as a new way to present multimedia presentations to my students. While this was a far better system than the chalkboard or overhead projector, very little was really changing in the learning in the classroom. The instruction was still centered on me, the "teacher-expert," with students taking notes and participating in a limited ways in discussion. I occasionally had the students conduct an project using online sources, but again they were limited to websites, databases and online encyclopedias. I also created my own website with my presentations online.

Then, about four years ago I began to investigate and use web 2.0 technologies in the classroom. Many of these were just emerging (especially for classroom use) and through the help of a colleague I began integrating them more and more into my instruction. I began by using a wiki as a place for students to work collaboratively on research and make group study guides. I expanded to class blogs were students could investigate and answer questions. My students and I then expanded to podcasts, online videos and online presentations of ways of doing collaborative projects. I believe my students benefited greatly from what they learned using these new tools, but in the end they were often just "add-ons." The main focus of the class continued to be my PowerPoint created lectures and tests based on those.

This past year I have started to question my system. What are the kids really learning? What are they retaining long-term? What is important for them to know and what is just "facts and figures?" Are they getting the essential skills they need to succeed in a very different world and a world that is changing rapidly?

I have come to the conclusion that the focus needs to change. It shouldn't been memorization and reguritation that most of what I have done over the past decade promotes. Instead, the students should be learning to be 1) independent and self-regulating learners, 2) people who can work effectively with others, 3) citizens who see the world, knowledge and ideas as interconnected (not broken into distinct subjects), 4) and individuals who can think for themselves. Now, I don't claim to have all the answers on how to do this, but not to try to understand how this happens and to make it happen would be a grave injustice to my students, my profession and the world at large.

So, I have begun the process of change. I have begun moving my teaching to a format that focuses on creating 21st century learners. This will not be an easy process and it won't happen overnight. There is much to learn, do and experiment. I cannot do this alone. Change requires teamwork in addition to vision and action. Stay tuned, more to come soon.

03 January 2010

The Age of Connectivity

As a student of history, I am always fascinated by the developments over the course of human events that have led us to our world today. Historians often use 'periodization' to delineate and explain these developments in different ways. So, we end up with the Renaissance, or the Age of Revolutions, or the Age of Progress, etc. Each period in history is unique and has its own spirit.

What will our age be known as?

Various names have been given to our time over the past few decades; the Nuclear Age, the Jet Age, the Space Age, the Information Age, etc. But, I think it has become pretty clear that the 20th century will be know as a time of global and ideological conflict. Beginning with the First World War through the end of the Cold War, most every event was marked either by conflict or ideological division in the world. But, from the period of the 1980s through to around the year 2000, this all started to change. As the Cold War ended, ideology was less of a driving force and for the first time in human history the barriers between most humans were being eliminated (politically, economically, and technologically). Many will point to the problems of the last decade (terrorism, war, economic collapse, climate change) as the defining narrative of our time. But, I think in the long view of history, these events will be far more minor than they seem to us today living through them. I believe that our time will be known as the Age of Connectivity (or what Isaac Mao calls 'sharism, a term I love, but I won't steal... yet. See his amazing article here.)

As the Gutenberg printing press spread the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries, the development of digital technologies will shape the next several centuries to come. What those technologies do that none have ever been able to do before is to connect people and their ideas no matter the space or time.

This may seem to be a certain path to the future, but not necessarily so. The shape of the future is not certain. The existence of the technology itself does not guarantee its best usage. After Gutenberg, it took visionaries like Martin Luther who said that people should be able to read the Bible in their own printed language to took the first steps toward more independent thought. It would take later centuries and more visionaries to push the bounds of the printed word and education to the masses.

So, who will be our 'digital visionaries?' Who will see the potential of the new connective technologies to create citizens who think, create, and collaborate? Will it be teachers? Will it be you?

01 January 2010

New Thinking in Education for a New Decade

Hello 2010 and the second decade of the 21st century. Also, welcome to my blog. I hope that what you read here will be enlightening, entertaining and thought-provoking.

First, a little about myself. I am a high school Social Studies teacher at a fairly traditional Catholic boys school in Baltimore, Maryland, United States. I have become known, jokingly, to some of my students as "Folmerica," a moniker I now take on with pride. I have been teaching for the past decade (I began teaching in 2000) and I have evolved as a teacher in many ways over that time. My goal, like any good teacher, is to expand my students experiences and to get them to think for themselves. Over the past few years I have experimented more and more in ways of doing that, in particular using various "web 2.0" technologies like podcasts, blogs and wikis. I think this has given them a good experience, but all the while, something was still missing; my overall educational philosophy was starkly traditional and "20th century." That is not good enough for the times we now live in.

Hence, the main purpose of this blog. Here, I will attempt to chronicle the revolution I want to create in my teaching and teaching at my school. My purpose is to bring 21st century education to the forefront of my practices and my school at large. What does that mean? I am not completely sure. But I envision an educational environment where students are directing their own learning, connecting and collaborating with others, learning across disciplines and curricula, creating and inventing their own understanding and meaning, critically thinking, and hence becoming what I call "digital global citizens." Along with documenting this journey, I will also include information about educational technology, current world events, and best practices as they relate to this developing vision.

A new decade calls for new thinking in education. The past decade has given us the tools, theory, and practice to make this reality. Now the question is, will we make it happen?