Districts need to broaden definition of “Legitimate” PD

Last week, teachers in my district received a handout reminding us how various types of PD experiences converted to hours for license-renewal. The standard options were there: university coursework, conference attendance, district-sponsored in-service meetings. Absent from the list?  The primary method from which I, and thousands of others, obtain ongoing professional development– through social networking.

Not only is  social networking not recognized as legitimate PD, but most district leaders are not willing to recognize any professional benefits in tools like Twitter, Blogging or social bookmarking services. Rather, they consider such platforms to be educational pariahs- believing their sole purpose is to showcase drivel from the likes of Snookie, Ashton Kutcher, and Kanye West.  Missing in this narrow condemnation? The opportunities for sharing ideas and resources with thousands of innovative education reformers and teachers like Daniel Pink,  Joyce Valenza and Joe Bower .

In a conservative estimate, I would say I spend about 5-10 hours each week involved in conversations and sharing with education professionals across the nation and around the world. This kind of personal, self-directed PD has enhanced my teaching more than any on-site inservice in recent memory.

I have attended two professional conferences this year. The first was an on-site conference for which I applied to the district for approval to attend. They paid my conference fees, and upon completion, I received a printed piece of paper stating that my LPDC should recognize 12 contact hours of official PD time. It was a worthwhile conference, and I came away with some useful information.

The second conference was this weekend’s EduCon conference, which I was in the process of attending as I began drafting this post, in between sessions, on my iMac in my home office.  I registered about 10 minutes before the first Saturday session and subsequently spent the next three 1/2 hours learning from, and sharing with, leading thinkers in my field. I discovered the conference through educators in my  Twitter PLN. In fact, several conference presenters are part of my PLN.

During sessions like The Future of Student Inquiry/Research: Environmental Scanning and Scenario Building, Standards-Based Grading in a Project-Based School: Reflections, Challenges, and Successes and Project-based Learning in the Language Classroom, I constantly uploaded notes, links and quotes to Evernote while simultaneously interacting with participants in session chat rooms. This afternoon, I learned more relevant information in one hour spent with virtual chat room participants than I learned in one day at my last face-to-face conference.

The irony? I will not receive any credit from my district for this conference. No contact hours, no CEU’s. In short, the conversations, emails, uploaded and shared links, conversations, and new PLN members do not count as PD in the eyes of my district.

Bottom line? The Professional Development I engage in via Twitter and Blog feeds and the articles and resources I discover through these connections, is far more relevant to me than school-wide meetings in the school cafeteria. We frown on delivering “sit and get” content to students. The same philosophy should be applied to PD. District officials need to recognize and embrace the power inherent in reading and writing analytical blog posts, sharing resources, and participating in an ongoing global dialectic about education.


Filters more fuel for the Digital Divide

Overheard in the library last week: 

Student A couldn’t remember his password for the OCIS career database.

He had it in his home email, so he pulled out his iTouch to retrieve it:

Student A: Man, when did they start blocking Wifi? I can’t get to my email on my iTouch anymore.

Student B: Do you have email on your phone?

(After a brief pause)

Student A: OH… Duh!

DUH, indeed. To terribly mangle and paraphrase the famous line from Field of Dreams, “If we block it, some will still be able to access it.” And some will not. And therein lies the problem.

The Digital Divide, which used to be about who had a home computer and who did not, has taken on a new form. The tools that students (and teachers) use every day at home are mainly blocked at school – but those privileged enough to have smart phones with data plans can easily circumvent the blocks, leaving students who cannot afford smart phones locked out, not just at home, but in the one environment meant to be an equalizer- their school.

And schools have more responsibility than just providing an equal playing field, they have the responsibility of teaching students to ethically and productively use the tools that permeate the workplaces and college classroom that await our students upon graduation.

In August, our teachers and administrators agreed to throw out a school-wide ban on cell phones and other electronic devices. We discussed and embraced the potential benefits of using cell phones and iPods as instruments of learning. Teachers, for the most part, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and even requested professional development on best practices of incorporating the devices in the classroom.

The paradox?  Shortly after the revolutionary “dropping of the ban,” Wifi access in school was suddenly blocked. Teachers could ask that their personal iPads, iTouches, etc. be “authenticated,” but students were excluded. So much for embracing technology.

The very infrastructure of technology in our school serves to aggressively barricade access to tools which are intrinsic to the lives of both students and teachers. Everything about our “access” screams, “We Don’t Trust You.”

Shelly Blake-Plock elaborates on the message that filters send to students in this excellent post.  And many of his points are showcased the policies and practices in my school.

In the library, for example, students have access to 20 Thin Client units on which they can access the Internet and use Microsoft Office programs. The list of what they CANNOT access, however, is much longer.

  • They cannot access USB, CD, DVD or other storage devices. (Thus, they cannot begin a paper or project at school, save it, and take it with them to finish at home, or vice/versa)
  • They cannot download Anything. Not free music clips to include in presentations, not video clips. Nothing. (Thus, last week when I was sharing Freeplay, a site that provides free music and sound clips for podcasts and video projects, my enthusiasm was squelched when a student reminded me, “Um, we can’t download any of these clips at school, so how’s that supposed to help?”)
  • They cannot access YouTube, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook, Email, Streaming music or video- tools they use Every Day when they step outside the barricade of the school.

Ironically, (and amazingly) many students walk around with access to these tools through the devices they carry in their pockets.

But rather than stepping up to our responsibility to demonstrate ethical, innovative, practical ways to use these tools to enhance student lives, schools instead force these technologies underground. Students are left to their own devices to figure them out while holed up in their rooms at home.  And those are the lucky ones. The students who can’t afford to carry portable computers with data plans in their pockets are needlessly and tragically left in the dark.

The Perks of Empowerment

This past week was a blur of activity in the library. The end of the semester brings a barrage of students busting through the library doors frantic to “finish” which in many cases is slang for “begin” semester projects. I spent a great deal of time directing them to the research and creation tools links I had organized on the library web site and helping them decide how to best utilize the tools they wished to use in their projects.

But the highlight of the week had nothing to do with my instruction. It was when “Doug,” a normally quiet, socially awkward student, interrupted my demonstration of a video tool to say, “why don’t you share the One True Media site I told you about before break.”

Gulp. The truth was, I hadn’t even looked at it. Who’s socially awkward now? I had made the conceited and myopic mistake of assuming that the tools I was sharing were the best available, and I dismissed Doug’s input and subsequently forgot about his suggestion over break. Now, however, his question was alive, staring me down in a room full of 25 attentive students anxious to get to the business of creating. “Well, sure,” I stammered. “I can share that one too. One more resource can’t hurt.”

When I pulled up the site in question, all it took was one quick scan of the home page to see that the features available here were better than on the tools I has so carefully selected. In fact, this tool solved the biggest problem/complaint associated with the tools I was teaching: this one allowed unlimited length projects. Brilliant!

Doug could tell that I was ignorant of the obvious capabilities of the online software, since I didn’t immediately dive into demonstrating the tools on the Smart Board. So he did the opposite of what I expected  him to do. He locked eyes with me and said, “I could come up and show them how to use it if you’d like.”  Oh, yes, Doug. I would like!

And he did. And it was beautiful. And some of the students in his class were motivated to immediately try the new tool.  And in an instant, this socially awkward young man was transformed into a confident content Expert, answering the questions I was used to answering. In the end, he showed the project that he had created with this tool, and the result was a group of students with stunned expressions who immediately began working furiously to create their own pieces of magic.

Doug had inspired his peers and raised the proverbial bar of project quality. And I smiled as I feasted on Crow.

It’s not funny- it’s failure.

Every school has “that teacher.” You know, the one who’s been the subject of friendly jibes at faculty meetings because he’s “just not an email guy.”  His home computer runs DOS, and don’t even get him started on the banalities of PowerPoint. Hand-scrawled, smudged-up transparencies and dusty notes smeared across a chalkboard were good enough for him, so By Golly they’re good enough for his students!

Or maybe you know the seasoned Language Arts maven who waxes poetic for the smell of the mimeo ink and breezes through each semester with nary a care in the world  because her trusty Black Binder is full of the black-line masters she’s been using in order, for every class, for decades. Sit and git? Proven practice. Inquiry-based learning and relevant tie-ins to current life experiences? Ridiculous coddling!  “Besides, I’m just not computer savvy.

“Not computer savvy.”  Even that phrase is archaic. “Computer savvy” barely scratches the surface of the depth of technological prowess that educators must possess in order to be effective agents of learning in today’s global society. Our students wake up every day and dip into a toolbox of Web 2.0 resources that define their identities. These same tools increasing define the post-secondary and labor market opportunities they will have. It is, therefore, unforgivable for teachers to remain willfully ignorant of the technologies and tools that define this generation of students and employers.

My father-in-law is a 64-year-old ASE certified Mechanic. He worked for many years before something as basic as power automobile locks was even considered. A standard automobile rolling off the line today includes an on-board computer, built-in GPS, and a thousand other cutting-edge technologies that were unheard of even fifteen years ago. If my AARP card-holding father-in-law were to admit that he didn’t know much about “today’s technologies,” the ASE would rightfully strip his certification, and the cars would no longer roll into his highly successful garage.

Fifteen years ago, teachers who where reticent to use email, online grading platforms, or, to a lesser extent, word processing software, could receive a bye. After all, those technologies were just beginning to gain footholds in our culture, just as power windows and locks in automobiles became recognized as the new “must have” luxuries to drivers in the early 90’s. But innovation transforms the modern world at unimaginable speed, and it is imperative that teachers stay one step ahead of the game…or at the very least in the game.

It used to be “cute” when “seasoned” educators said they “weren’t up on technology” in the same way it was cute for my grandma to say she was confused about “talking into  that answering machine thingamagigy.” But what was “novel” fifteen years ago, or in some cases as early as five years ago, is now Absolutely Vital. To be a teacher who is “not computer savvy” in today’s society is NOT a cute quirk. It is the badge of a teacher who is tragically ill-equipped to help students excel in a world defined by 24-7 access to experts via Twitter, Skype, Google Hangouts, Global collaboration, RSS, collaborative Google Apps, Cloud Computing, Wikis, Moodle, Edmodo, Evernote, Diggo, Flikr, Facebook, Netflix, iTunes, Animoto, Garageband and Podcasts.  These “wacky new tools” have replaced the manual locks and “crank roll up” technologies of the past. These tools have re-defined reality.

We cannot prepare our students to compete in a global economy by offering them sit N git with smudged transparencies and Black Line Masters. That’s worse than phoning it in … it’s using a rotary phone to do it.

Building Bridges with Book Clubs

There’s nothing like coming back from a long break and kickstarting the New Year with new projects! Right before break, the students in Media Club voted to start a lunch-time book club. This week they selected Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher as their first read. (Mainly because all of the other suggestions were titles that most of them had already read. Popular titles by Ellen Hopkins, Libba Bray, Suzanne Collins, and Walter Dean Myers.) Now we just have to wait for the books to arrive! My club has some money to spend this year, and I wanted to provide the books for them as soon as possible.  I’m currently investigating  local businesses to serve as sponsors for subsequent books.

While the students are reading Crutcher, I’m going to suggest the same book as the next read for our also-fledgling Staff YA book club. The hope is that when students see the staff “Ask Me About My Book” signs, and notice that their teachers are reading the same book THEY are, it will spark impromptu discussion in the halls and classrooms about reading, teen issues, and anything else that comes up. In short: more opportunities to strengthen rapport.

Our staff club just finished James Dashner’s  The Maze Runner . Sadly, most of us were less than impressed, but that’s not the point of this post, nor is the point of book club to enjoy everything that we read. The purpose of the staff club is to give teachers a window into the literary worlds their students are enthralled with, to discuss literature, and to investigate possible curricular tie-ins in the process. It’s amazing how few staff would actually pick up a YA novel for pleasure reading. My goal with this club is to change this behavior.

I was pleasantly surprised with the diversity of staff who responded to my invitation. Ideally we would have someone from every curricular area. As it stands, we’re not too shabby :  an assistant principal, intervention specialists, our district technology coordinator, an ESL tutor, two middle school teachers, as well as the requisite English teachers. (I nearly nabbed a social studies teacher, who was interested, but has a pretty full coaching schedule, as well as a science teacher who teaches night classes and couldn’t make the commitment this semester. ) I may not have them now, but I WILL get them.  Once they see what they’re missing, they’ll be beating down the doors to participate! (Can you tell that I’m also focusing on more positive thinking this year?!  )  🙂

Censoring Sense

Roger Ebert is currently embroiled in controversy for a tweet he posted in reference to the new “n-word” free edition of Huckleberry Finn, in which he used the word in question. His response to those offended by his post, as well as his argument against the censoring of the new edition, is both articulate and completely rational- qualities often lacking on the side of those who support censorship in any form. From his Chicago Sun Times blog:

“The word is spoken by an illiterate 11-year-old runaway on the Mississippi River of the mid-19th Century. He has been schooled by his society to regard the runaway slave Jim as a Nigger and a thief … Huck reasons his way out of ignorant racism and into enlightenment and grace. He makes that journey far in advance of many of his “educated” contemporaries. Part of reading the novel is learning to be alert about how the N-Word is used in that process.”

Twain himself said, in a letter to George Bainton, ” The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Most of us realize Twain’s intent was not to be racist. He was simply using the language of the times. To remove the word “nigger” to prevent modern readers from being ” uncomfortable” removes the carefully crafted authenticity from the book. It removes the power at the heart of the book. It removes the significance of Huck’s enlightenment. And it removes an opportunity for candid discussion in classrooms across the nation. In its place, it leaves the intellectually frightening suggestion that confronting learners with an “uncomfortable” situation is inherently bad.  It suggests that we shouldn’t “upset” students by holding a mirror to society. Worse, it suggests that teachers are not capable of addressing sensitive issues in their classrooms and that students are not capable of critical thinking.

Next up? Maybe a revised Schindler’s List, sans all that nasty Holocaust business.

Celebrate the Small Successes

As I was reading over my last post, it occurred to me that the jist of it was primarily self-deprecating. “I experimented with a slew of tools last year but none of them worked.” However, I neglected to do something that, as a mentor teacher, I often have to remind my Resident Educator to do: I forgot to consider what worked.

That being said, I’m going to practice what I preach and put in writing those things I was able to accomplish last year.

* Collaborated with freshmen English teachers to create independent reading projects that culminated in multimedia podcasts, book trailers, and original musical scores. Students really enjoyed learning to use Stupeflix, Animoto, Soundation, iMovie and Garageband to express and enhance their learning.

* Increased membership in my Media Club, a club driven by the interests of its members. This group’s focus: Blogging about books and movies, creating podcasts linked to the library catalog, and organizing Open Mic afternoons and Lunch Jams for students to share music, poems and artwork. Both students and staff appreciate the Jams!

* Created a social presence for the library on Facebook. (Students are much more interactive here than they are on the school’s library page, which is buried in links on the district site!)

* Provided faculty in-service on Moodle and created several “converts” to the platform

* Organized a faculty YA book club utilizing Moodle and Facebook to communicate between face-to-face meetings

Ok. That feels a little better. So what if my staff didn’t really “take” to (or in many cases, even open) my clever video Tech Tool updates. So what if I failed to get district administrators to see the value in opening up ANY blog sites, or to realize that Twitter can be a valuable professional development tool, not just a place for Lindsay Lohan to spew narcissistic rants.  So what if I registered for a hundred different online tools and services, only to find several blocked at school, while several others were abandoned for lack of time.

At least I have the above meager threads on which to cling.

This year, I will exhale. I will slow down. I will concentrate on improving on my small successes while adding just a couple of new, manageable goals. In short, I will focus on the Follow-Through.