Sunday, October 26, 2014

#EdcampUNY - Professional Learning at its Best


First a Bit of Gratitude

Just about a year ago I sat in this very spot and wrote a reflection on my experience at the Edscape conference in New Jersey. It was also about this time that Peter DeWitt, Lisa Meade, Vicki Day, Tim Dawkins, and I started to discuss bringing an Edcamp to Upstate New York. So much has happened in the past year, but certainly one of the highlights is seeing our dream, and our plan for an Edcamp, come to fruition.

It is hard to describe exactly what I'm feeling at this precise moment, so I hope you'll bear with me. Before I get into precisely what happened yesterday in Queensbury, I need to take a moment to express my gratitude.  First, and foremost, to our families for allowing us the opportunity to take time away from them to work on this project. To the Queensbury School District, particularly to Queensbury High School who opened their doors to us. To Mr. Matt Hladun for sharing his time, talents and technology expertise. Special thanks as well to the Edcampers that participated in our very first Edcamp.  Many of you traveled great distances, and made the Edcamp experience what it was, by sharing your ideas, passions, and knowledge with all of us. To Jon Harper and Douglas Manion who assisted the night before and the day of the event, your insight and support was truly appreciated. Last, but not least the EdcampUNY organizing committee - my colleagues and friends: Tim Dawkins, Vicki Day, Peter DeWitt, Lisa Meade and Patti Siano. Thank you for the laughs, camaraderie, and inspiration. I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from you and work with you.

The Power of an Edcamp

If I had to sum it up in one word, I guess it would be participation. I think the power of any individual Edcamp comes from the participation of the attendees. With an Edcamp there are no scripted sessions or pre-determined schedules. The conference is built by the participants. Their knowledge, experiences, passions, questions and challenges and their willingness to share them with others are what determine the experience. I have participated in a number of conferences, and I can say that you would be hard-pressed to find a conference experience that is more engaging, informative and thought-provoking than an Edcamp. Having the ability to follow your interests, and the collaborative nature of the event itself seems result in powerful professional learning.  

What Happens at EdcampUNY, Doesn't Stay at EdcampUNY...

We've all seen the ads that tell you, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." As I was driving home from Queensbury today, it struck me that the exact opposite of that was going to happen with those of us who attended EdcampUNY yesterday.  The amazing things that were shared, discussed, challenged and learned were not going to be confined to Queensbury, NY or to this singular event, the impact that the event had was not going to be limited to those who could physically be in attendance, the impact indeed is going to be felt across the nation. A pretty strong statement considering the actual size of the event, but this, "is the little Edcamp that could" and it did. Participants in this Edcamp shared their learning during the event as they tweeted with the hashtag #EdcampUNY, they sent emails and texts to their administrators and instructional coaches. They voxed their friends and colleagues with the things they were learning. They are blogging about the impact of the day, and how they are empowered to try something new. Some are even sharing how they are going to go back and work on an Edcamp for their own region or district. This is how I know, that the learning and sharing, the inspiring and empowering will not end just because our little event did.

Professional Learning: It's What You Make It

StartUp Liverpool
Superintendent's Conference Day
I love professional development, yup, you read it right. I said, "I love professional development." Let me explain. I love learning. I read about education, blog about education, tweet about education, vox about education, have conversations about education with educators and non-educators alike, watch videos and documentaries about education, and participate in conferences all around issues and best practices in education, so yes, I do love professional development.  My idea of professional development is not narrowly defined as the professional development that is done to me, or even for me. No, my definition of professional development is all encompassing, mostly due to the fact that I am taking responsibility for MY professional development.  So in that vein, all of the above are avenues or ways for me to improve or develop as a professional.

So often as educators we complain about the lack of training, or the lack of professional development if you will. Of course, if I am expected to instruct using particular programs, or utilize specific tools, I would like to have some specific training on those items. But, the reality is that despite the best intentions of our administrators, trainers and instructional coaches, there is rarely enough time allotted or sufficient training given, during formal PD sessions for educators to walk away able to successfully implement a given tool or program. I think there are a few things that need to happen. First, we need to take some responsibility for our own learning. We need to be active participants that are willing to engage, to try something new, to take some risks. Second, we need to take advantage of the expertise of our colleagues.  There are many experts within our buildings, within our districts, and certainly within a larger Professional Learning Network. Third, we need to look at the delivery of PD in new ways, and be open to learning and engaging in new ways.

Our job is difficult, the demands are many, and time seems fleeting, but quality professional development can inspire, empower and challenge us in ways we could have never imagined. Thus, making our jobs a little easier, the demands seem a little less demanding, and our classrooms more engaging.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Game Changers: Lessons in Leadership Week 3

Another busy week has come and gone, and as I sit down to write this I am struck with just how much learning happens in the span of a week. There is so much we, as educators, can learn about instruction and learning by studying the work and play in our classrooms, in our homes and in our community. Learning that occurs without set objectives, without a structured lesson plan, without formal assessments. Please don't misunderstand, I believe those lessons are important, and formal assessment is a critical part of teaching and learning, but it is interesting to dig into those unstructured moments and evaluate what is happening and how we might tap into that.

My son is a third grader, and my daughter a first grader. They are opposites in many ways, but they are both curious kids, they love to play and they love to learn. My son will spend an hour roaming around outside looking for insects, frogs and toads. He will go online and read books to learn more about local fish species and to learn about the best bait to use. Josh will also round up his friends and start a game of baseball in the backyard or make up some game that he and his buddies can play. My daughter, Cassie, loves school and you can often find her playing the role of teacher to her stuffed animal students. She loves to read, to draw, to sing and to dance. Regardless of the activities they choose, learning is always happening.

Last week at her skating lesson Cassie fell; she fell more than once, and she fell hard. But she continued to get up, and to try again. There were points when she looked a little defeated, but she continued. Her coach seemed to sense the precise moment when she needed some redirection, and when she just needed to figure it out for herself.

The other night Josh came home and it was a "light" homework night. He finished, rather begrudgingly, the ELA worksheet he was assigned. I encouraged him to put forth his best effort, and to write legibly. I don't recall specifically what the worksheet was about and I'm pretty sure Josh won't be able to either, but ask him what he did after that, and you'll get a detailed explanation of how he created his own adventure book. Yup, my son who "hates writing" decided to author and illustrate his own story, and was encouraging his friend and sister to do the same. Insisting that they could write the next great adventure series. He apparently is also looking into personal finance, as he intends to charge 50 cents for each of his books. Anyhow, as I watched the scene unfold, I couldn't help but smile and marvel at what was happening. It also caused me to wonder about the deeper meaning, both for me as a teacher and as a learner, trying to improve my craft.

Yesterday, the kids came home with Pony Beads and plastic lace, which were staples in my programming days at a camping resort in Maine. Even though I had a number of other things that needed to get done, we sat down and created geckos with the Pony Beads. We talked about my life as an assistant program director, we talked about geckos, and what they look like and where they're found. We ran into some difficulty part way through, because my memory isn't as sharp, and I had a hard time remembering the pattern, so we took to Google. We followed part of the pattern and improvised. Having completed the gecko, they were eager to find other designs. I on the other hand had to tackle more mundane activities like laundry and ironing, but I had a great vantage point for listening in on their conversations. They poured over the designs, and discussed which ones they should attempt, which ones they might modify, they watched video tutorials by other kids. Beads and lace were strewn across the living room floor, and two kids were hard at work. It was authentic, it was meaningful, and it was learning.

Those stories while cute or endearing, actually point to something a little bit bigger I think. They point to ways in which we need to think about our roles as educators, our instructional practices, the ways in which we engage our students and the opportunities that we provide. Which leads me to what is game-changing in education.  There is no shortage of discussion around game changers in education. In fact, Saturday morning there was a lively chat on Twitter (see the storify of the #SATCHAT courtesy of moderator Billy Krakower), where educators across the country discussed the idea and described what they felt were the current game changers. The funny thing is the more tweets I read discussing things like the newest piece of technology or latest tool, project based learning, flipped classroom, coding, growth mindset, etc. the more I shook my head, and thought about my two kids and what I have witnessed with them at home, and then with 24 students in my classroom these past couple of weeks. It suddenly struck me that it is the kids. Kids like mine, like yours, the ones in our classrooms, and the ones down the hall - they are the real game changers.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


I'll admit it, "Goosebumps" is kind of an odd title for a post. The truth is, however that for the past couple of days I have had goosebumps - a lot. The excitement in our classroom has been palpable, and you would be hard pressed to figure out exactly who in the room is more excited, the students or myself. The excitement for me at least comes from the authentic, and meaningful learning, the demonstration of skills that have been mastered, the evidence of teamwork and collaboration on the part of my students. The excitement for them is partly due to being able to use some pretty cool new tools, but I think they also are able to recognize their growth, and are excited to share their learning as well.

This week we were able to login to our Google accounts for the first time. It may not sound like much at first blush, but there are now 24 third graders that have access to amazing possibilities for collaboration, both synchronously and asynchronously. Students, that as a result of the features of Google Apps for Education, are going to have numerous opportunities to collaborate and share with peers at both a local, and global level; sharing their work, receiving timely feedback, revising, editing, and sharing some more. Pretty powerful learning in a nutshell.  Being able to access our Google accounts also made it possible to login to the new Chromebooks that we are piloting for the next 6 weeks or so.  We are pretty impressed by the versatility of the Chromebooks, and are using them to access online practice for ELA and math, to post to our blogs, to engage in coding tutorials, to conduct research, to take notes, and present information, and see a number of other potential uses.

Students also got their hands on our buildings' iPads yesterday, and were able to work on some basic block coding using a couple of different apps (Hopscotch, Daisy the Dinosaur, and Kodable). There are so many layers of skills that go into coding, even at the most basic level. Everything from problem solving and logic, to the ability to hypothesize and predict, analyze and evaluate, to learn independently and in collaboration with others, and certainly to develop risk taking and perseverance. It is truly wonderful, and inspiring to see a group of students sit and tackle a problem and a program, that would honestly intimidate many adults, with little to no formal instruction.

Finally, we are extremely fortunate this week to be able to work with one of the District's traveling Nao Robots. I'm going to be honest, this tech tool and I know it is just a tool, a vehicle for learning, is awesome. I mean, having a robot was something I dreamed about when I was a kid. I loved The Jetsons and envisioned having a Rosie of my very own, of course what I got for Christmas that year was Robie the Robot, an RC controlled device, whose abilities were pretty limited. Anyhow, back to the present and to my third grade classroom, where we are now using Choreographe software to program a humanoid robot, it isn't difficult to imagine the level of excitement in the room. And as excited as I was to have this robot in our classroom, it actually doesn't compare to the feeling of watching the students engage and learn with it.  One of the absolute highlights for me, was watching one of our struggling students take the lead in his group, grabbing the manual and reading to his peers, explaining what they needed to do. He was so determined to access this high-level text, to understand what they would need to do and to execute it, it was nothing short of amazing. I was equally impressed by another group, and their willingness to work as a team, to trouble-shoot and to encourage. This is the power of technology in the classroom.

I know there are many skeptics out there, but I think their skepticism comes primarily from a lack of understanding, and a little bit of fear.  Integrating all of this technology can seem overwhelming, but you really do not need to be a computer expert to take advantage of Google Apps for Education or coding in the classroom. What you do need, is a willingness to try, to make mistakes and in many regards just let the students drive the learning. It may be a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but the rewards are tremendous, and the learning is important.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Lessons in Leadership Week 2

Another bonus of being a connected educator is that you end up learning about, and getting to know some really brilliant folks from all different walks of life. People that are willing to share their talent and their expertise. People that are willing to be a little bit vulnerable, and a whole lot of courageous. People that are willing to put their experiences out there for others to learn from.

There are a bunch of bloggers that I read pretty consistently. I find their writing leads me to greater reflection of my own practice, and often challenges me in some way. You can find the links to their blogs below. All of them are truly gifted, and are inspiring. This week however, there were a few blog posts that stood out, one by George Couros about the 8 Characteristics of the Innovative Leader, A Principal's Note to Self: Please Stow Your Baggage in the Overhead Compartment by Seth Berg, and Lead By Example Others Will Follow by Lolly Daskal. These three posts look at leadership from slightly different vantage points, and yet there are points of intersection and some common themes. Here's a list of the 5 that stood out for me.

  1. I need to be the change that I want to see in my classroom, my school, my District. I can only control my actions, and can only work in my sphere of influence, and while that sphere may be small, it can have an immediate impact. Just like ripples in a pond, it may start small touching first my students and their families, or my grade-level or building colleagues, but that ripple has the ability to spread.
  2. I need to focus on the positive. There are certainly plenty of things we could complain about, everything from the insanity of high-stakes testing to the corporate reform agenda, focusing on the positive can be easier said than done. But shifting our focus to the positive is precisely what is necessary. Negative thoughts are draining, conversely when we focus on the positive things that are happening in our classrooms, schools, districts and in those of our colleagues around the globe, those can be truly life-giving.
  3. I need to put myself in other people's shoes. How many times have we heard that we need to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes? I remember my Mom saying it to me plenty as a kid, and I've certainly used it myself on my own kids, but it's not easy. Quite frankly we're all a little self-centered, despite our best intentions to be otherwise. It is easier to put yourself in somebody else's shoes if you take the time to get to know that person, to build a relationship with them, to gain some understanding of their perspective. Most of us have pretty similar hopes and dreams be it for our lives personally, the lives of our children, or our community.
  4. I need to appreciate others more. Take the time to notice, acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of others. We are a community, and we need each other - it is important to acknowledge this and support it. 
  5. I need to be present, and in the moment. Our lives are hectic. We need to consciously slow down, tune out the distractions and tune into one another.
I realize that none of these in and of themselves are particularly earth-shattering, and if you are a leader in any capacity, you know them to be true, and yet sometimes they get forgotten. In the hustle and bustle, in the unending list of demands, some of these can get lost. It is good to have a reminder every now again. I think this week I might actually grab some post-its and leave myself some of these reminders.

Some of my favorite blogs (other than the ones listed above) in no particular order...

Jon Harper:
Ben Gilpin:
Tony Sinanis:
Peter DeWitt:
Lisa Meade:
Joe Sanfelippo: