Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Freedom Writers

The other day I finished The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. If you haven't read the book or seen the video, put them on your summer to do list!

Erin Gruwell is a novice high school English teacher who inspires her students to overcome the violence, bigotry, and poverty of their East L.A. neighborhoods through her effort to form personal connections with these students and allowing them to express themselves through writing. Visit her website to learn more about her teaching practices.

Ms. Gruwell’s students articulate the pain of abuse, neglect, bullying, drugs, homelessness, abandonment, shop lifting, prison, suicide, and gang wars to name a few. The students feel like outsiders because of their race, sexual preference, learning disabilities, obesity, -- you name it. They suffer a loss of “childhood” which results in a loss of hope. Ms. Gruwell shares with them the stories of Anne Frank, Zlata Filipovic and others so they see that even under extreme adversity an individual can make a difference. Her message is so empowering.

Although I teach elementary school students in a working class suburb of Baltimore, the story still resonates with me. At my school, I too see students who are not protected from the harsh realities of the world. Columbine, 911, and the Virgina Tech shootings make it difficult for any child to stay a child for long. Additionally, the rapid pace of change and increasingly impersonal aspects of a growing society adds to students’ feelings of isolation. A caring teaching and the ability to voice one’s story are potent tools to combat these forces. The leads me to ponder how Web 2.0 technologies can boost this process.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A rose by any other name

I recently was asked to talk to some teachers in my district about Action Research. I must say I felt some trepidation. I did an Action Research project some years ago, but I am not an expert by any means. The event was coordinated by University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and I was going to have a UMBC professor as a partner for the session. My role would be to give the viewpoint from the trenches (i.e., a teacher who had actually been through the process). This made me feel better about not being an expert, but I it also made me realize I had another concern.

I was not convinced that Action Research was worth the effort required. I didn’t know if I wanted to “advocate” for something that I doubted myself. It turned out that all of the other teachers who might have served in my place were not available. Thus, I agreed to participate and do my best.

Well, I pulled out some books and looked at some websites as I prepared my presentation. I wanted my audience to understand that Action Research is not as intimidating as it sounds. Actually, reflective teachers do a less structured variation of it all the time which I prefer to call “teacher inquiry”. I realized that “teacher inquiry” was something that I do firmly believe in and have been doing and promoting for some time. I even was a finalist in Dell’s competition on “data-driven decision making” – another name for “teacher inquiry”. I had to look at my preconceptions to reconcile this contradiction.

When you call it “Action Research”, the connotation includes publishing a definitive conclusion for a larger audience, using the scientific method, and perhaps “randomized groups”. However, this connotation comes from the word “research” and those characteristics apply to “basic research” – not “action research”. The word “action” means that you act within your classroom. With “action research”:
· Publishing your results is optional
· The process is expected to be iterative – not a linear like the scientific method
· You don’t need to use randomized groups.

In other words, I had a problem with the name not the concept. My action research project had been time-intensive, but action research is still valuable on a smaller and less formal scale. I needed to examine what I valued about action research. First, the basis is inquiry. As a life long learner, asking my own questions about my practice is fundamental. I need to question in order to improve and should question in order to be a model for my students. Questioning without follow-up is worthless. Action in order to answer these questions is vital. Next, it follows that if you are going to spend effort on some action, it makes sense to evaluate if the action had the intended effect. The Question-Action-Evaluate triad just makes sense and really is what action research is all about.

This triad was something I could advocate. I needed my audience comprehend this understanding of “What is action research?” Not only that, but I wanted them to be empowered by what this meant. If practice could be improved by personal examination, then the individual could be a source of school improvement innovation. Each teacher did not need to wait to be told the best course of action by the district or “basic research”. These sources were tools in the process of improved practice, but one’s own “action research” was also a valid tool as well!

Note: After this line of reasoning, I was ready for my co-presentation. It went well and the audience went from saying that they never did action research to realizing that they have been doing action research all along.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Safari Montage was the biggest success

When a teacher wants to jazz up a lesson to help students understand a concept, a picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth .... ? This year our county (Baltimore County Publish Schools) provided a video on demand service (Safari Montage) for all schools.

Safari is very easy to use and because the videos are not streamed, the performance is excellent regardless of Internet bandwidth. The greatest feature of Safari is that you can search by topic, or content standard. Then you can zero in on the just the minute or two of video that supports your specific instructional objective. Our teachers have used video clips to help students learn about behavior of mosquitoes, the life cycle of a frog, what a seed needs to grow, healthy eating habits, and many other topics. The videos were high quality and each had metadata that decribed the appropriate grade level(s) for viewing the video.

In addition to the technical capabilities provided by the Safari Montage vendor, the county utilized a well-thought out rollout strategy. The rollout included on-site setup, system-wide professional development, technical support coordinated with the department of technology and follow-up via the library information services web portal, including an e-community of best practices.

I have introduced a lot of different technologies to my teachers, but this one took off the fastest. I wonder what made this innovation more successful than others. I'm sure the ease of use was an important factor, but I also feel it fit easily into the classroom teachers’ educational philosophy. In other words, it supported them as communicators of new knowledge. Basically, they already know how to apply videos in the "lecture" instructional model. I believe another positive factor was that for teachers with a large TV connected to their computer, they could use it directly in their classroom with minimal set up. Thus, the innovation was an efficient use of instructional time.

I hope as more technology integration approaches become available they will be adopted as quickly and broadly as Safari Montage. What innovations have been successful at your school?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Adopt or Avoid?

Why do some teachers jump right in when a new technology is introduced? There are tons of reasons to postpone adopting a new technology, such as …

The professional development:

  • Hasn’t happened

  • Was at an inconvenient time or place

  • Wasn’t targeted to my situation

  • Didn’t provide enough information on how to apply it to teaching.

The technology:

  • Takes too much preparation time to use

  • Is not reliable

  • Is too slow on the equipment I have

  • Requires that I sign-out equipment elsewhere in the building, so it is too inconvenient to setup

  • Is too restrictive (not enough flexibility, agility, or creativity).

The intended use:

  • Is not developmentally appropriate for my students

  • Is too abstract/basic for my students

  • Is not part of the curriculum

  • Would inhibit human-interaction between the teacher and the student or between students

  • Is just another fad. This too will pass.

I usually respond that if you could just as effectively deliver the lesson without the technology, then you should! However, there are times when technology integration truly enhances the instruction (i.e., it has a high ratio of instructional benefit to effort required – a high value ratio.) There are too many examples of innovative practices with high value ratios to list here. Yet, a high value ratio is necessary but not sufficient to induce adoption. What makes one innovation take hold while another one flounders?

See also: Sugar, W., Crawley, F., & Fine, B. (2004). Examining teachers’ decisions to adopt new technology. Educational Technology and Society, 7 (4), 201-213.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Cutting Edge or Bleeding Edge?

You might call me an Educational Technologist (although I prefer the title technology integration coach). I enjoy trying out new innovative techniques and teaching them to myself.

However, yesterday I became acutely aware that many of my classroom teachers feel just the opposite. Change is scary. This cohort of teachers craves order and autonomy. They carefully plan and prepare to increase the probability that their lessons will work. This is admirable and it makes them great teachers.

Yesterday, one of these teachers was about to try the Interwrite software with a projector and laptop. I was overcommitted and couldn't provide the coaching time I had hoped. When I needed to leave to fulfill another obligation, she was terribly distraught. I felt miserable as well; because I felt like I was abandoning her in a time of great need.

In the future, I need to be sensitive to the emotional side of attempting something new and risky. I need to do a better job of managing teacher expectations. Most of all, I need to become more comfortable about saying no, when the demands of my job won't let me fulfill a teacher's request. If I had said, "I can't help you until next Tuesday.", then her hopes wouldn't have been dashed. She would have planned today's lesson without the new technology. Then on Tuesday, she could have employed it more successfully.

In a similar vein, if a technology is still new to me or not working reliably - then I need to be assertive and say it is not yet available. My classroom teachers expect me to have mastered the techniques which they want to try. When they ask for more than I can deliver, they don't know any better. I need to remove my pride from the situation and admit my limitations. It is better to be slightly embarrassed ahead of time rather fall on my face at the last minute. Whew! What a tough lesson to learn!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Murphy's Law

It seems that when you use technology in your lesson; if something can go wrong, it will at the most inopportune time.

This week I have been gearing up in helping to prepare one of my teachers for her observation. The administration wants to build technology integration capacity outside of the computer lab (i.e., not just by me - the technology integration teacher, but by all teachers throughout regular instruction in the classrooms). To motivate teachers to integrate technology, the administration asked that one observation per teacher this year demonstrate technology integration.

During her observation, this particular teacher (Mrs. T) wanted to use the iPanel, an interactive monitor / graphics tablet from Interwrite. This device runs the same software as an electronic whiteboard, but you sit down and write right on the monitor's surface instead of standing with your back to students and writing on the whiteboard's surface. We had the device on loan for evaluation purposes from our helpful local reseller (Peripheral Vision, LLC). I demonstrated the equipment and Mrs. T was very excited about the capabilities. She and her students tried it within a number of math lessons. The students were really engaged and enjoyed easily seeing the activities with the attached LCD projector. We thought we had a great plan for her observation.

Now this leads me to the Murphy's law portion of the story. As it turns out, the iPanel uses a special pen and the pen tip fell out unbeknownst to Mrs. T. She sent me a frantic email. I told her not to worry. I contacted their technical support that kindly put another pen tip in the mail at no charge. Unfortunately, it would not arrive in time for her observation. I tried other Interwrite pens, but they were not interchangeable. I then borrowed an existing Interwrite Schoolpad from another teacher in the building. Again, we thought we had a great backup plan.

Murphy strikes again. Although I had tested the Schoolpad with the same laptop she intended to use for her observation, when she started to teach the Blue Tooth connection wouldn't autoconnect. She turned it off and back on as I had advised her, but still it would not connect. She reverted to using her traditional blackboard at this point. I jumped in and made the software manually connect. This time it did work. Whew! She competed the rest of her lesson with the SchoolPad. The technology added engagement and focus to her delivery.

Typically teachers don't deal well with this type of unpredictability brought on by Murphy's Law-like events described above. Children create enough unpredictability - they don't want to add more chaos because of technology. I believe it was Alan November who I heard use the phrase that technology integrated lessons need to be "Monday morning ready" (i.e., they need to be able to slip right in to our teaching and be ready to go first thing on a Monday morning).

I feel this application of technology did not pass the "Monday Morning Test". This is not a criticism of the hardware or software. I take some responsibility for the problems. I think as a technology coach, I need to have more backup supplies and teach troubleshooting techniques more effectively. In hindsight this seems obvious, but prior to these experiences, I have tried "not to confuse" teachers with the technical aspects and "let them focus on the instruction". I now feel I need to adjust this philosophy, because if teachers cannot function independently of me when they integrate technology in their classrooms, they will not fully adopt technology-integrated instructional strategies.

I invite other technology coaches to weigh in on how they prepare for the dreaded "Murphy".

Monday, May 28, 2007

I'm Blogging!

Hi everyone! This is my first post. I'm a technology integration teacher at Relay Elementary in Baltimore, Maryland. I recently attended the MICCA conference (a conference for technology using educators in Maryland and surrounding vacinity). I have heard about blogging, podcasting, wikis for a while now. When I heard Will Richardson and Hall Davidson speak at the conference, I decided to be part of the wave, rather than just a spectator so I'm starting this blog.

Initially, my focus will be on the part of my job that entails helping other elementary school teachers in my school learn how to integrate technology into their instruction. I view this part of my job as "coaching". I'm hoping to elicit a dialog with other professionals who are coaches on technology integration as well.

Being a technology integration coach is sometimes like being a tight rope walker. I feel that I need to be careful with each step. I want to support teachers as they attempt new techniques. I don't want them to feel that I judge them. I make every effort to be encouraging. However, sometimes I have knowledge that would help their lessons to be more effective. I struggle with when I should advise them about things I have learned and when I should let them learn themselves. I recognize this balance is hard to accomplish.

As a parent and teacher myself, I recognize that knowing when to help and when to let go takes care and wisdom. I look forward to reflecting on this topic and hope other technology integration coaches that eventually stumble upon this blog will join me in the dialog.