Monday, July 27, 2015

Principals' Short Course Reflections: Part 3 - Creating a School Culture of Learning

As someone who is entering the world of educational administration, I have a lot to learn about what it means to be a leader in a school, and in particular the leader of a K-12 online school. So despite the fact that my colleagues were heading out to begin enjoying the summer break, I joined many teachers from across the province in Saskatoon to learn, to connect, to engage in conversations about schools and leadership at the Saskatchewan Principal's Short Course at the beginning of July. 

I am reflecting on the course through a series of blog posts where I think through my big "take-aways" and make some plans for implementing them into the Sun West Distance Learning Centre. This is Part 3 of my series:

Part 3 - Creating a School Culture of Learning

There is little doubt that the actions of the school principal sets the tone for the school culture. School leadership carries an important responsibility for ensuring that learning happens at multiple levels - with students, with teachers and support staff, with Administration.

In the book, School Culture Rewired, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker identify five types of culture and the impact of those on student learning and staff interactions:
  • Toxic
  • Fragmented
  • Balkanized
  • Contrived
  • Comfortable
  • Collaborative

While the goal is certainly to develop a school culture that is collaborative, the question for new administrators like myself is, "How can this be achieved?"

A number of sessions and keynote presentations at the Saskatchewan Principals' Short Course focused on school culture, providing a variety of lenses through which to view the principals' role in shaping a culture of learning. Here are my Top 4 "take-aways" from the day:

1. Actions of a Learning Leader
2. Professional Learning Teams
3. Routines and Modelling
4. Setting Targets

 1. Actions of a Learning Leader

Dr. Michelle Prytula, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan, shared some suggestions for the deliberate actions that leaders must take in order to set a positive tone throughout schools. She identified eight ways in which school principals can shape the culture:
  1. Take courage
  2. Look through the eyes of students and parents
  3. Articulate the vision and live it out
  4. Set clear goals
  5. Praise excellence
  6. Be ready and learn how to have tough conversations when needed
  7. Collaborate
  8. Walk the talk
As I shift into the new principal role in the fall, I have been thinking about how to adopt and subsequently reflect on these actions to ensure that they become a regular part of my routines and habits. In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests that in order to make new habits automatic, we must undertake some deliberate planning to instill these changes in our lives. In the next few weeks, I will need to develop some routines so that these actions become automatically ingrained in the work we do at the Sun West Distance Learning Centre.

2. Professional Learning Teams

Keynote presenter, former principal of the Elrose School, Vicki Moore, a Sun West School Division colleague and mentor, shared the lessons she has learned as she has worked with her staff to establish a culture conducive to learning. Inspired by leadership books, including Jim Collin's, Good to Great, Vicki asked three important questions:
  1. What is essential to creating a culture of learning?
  2. What needs to be addressed?
  3. How will we get there?

The turning point for her school, according to Vicki, was the creation of some purposeful, well-functioning professional learning teams, or PLTs. By exploring the work of Richard DuFour and the role that learning communities can have on positively impacting student learning, Elrose School, began to make improvements in how they used their collaborative time, empowering teachers to learn together.

At Elrose School, teachers participate in collaboratively designed professional learning activities that support the school's vision and mission - particularly around the school's PBL action research and their 1:1 school-wide initiative. By finding ways to hear teachers and give them voice, Vicki was able to build strong working relationships with her staff, getting to know them and their needs, which also allowed her to support them in their learning journeys.

Community involvement is also an important factor in supporting a culture of learning. Regular communication with parents takes place through a weekly school newsletter which not only celebrates the learning of students and staff, but also provides an invitation to parents to be part of school activities.Teachers submit a weekly update for the newsletter to keep parents and community members informed about classroom activities and Vicki includes prompts for parents to help them have their own discussions about learning at home.

By shifting the focus to learning in her school and bringing the community into the conversation, Vicki exemplifies what it means to be a learning leader and a change agent and is one leader who clearly is walking the talk. Thanks for inspiring, Vicki! My next step in this area is to make a plan to bring teachers into the professional learning conversation for the next school year.

3. Routines and Modelling

Tracey Young of Prairie Spirit School Division is another school leader who set up some routines for professional learning that helped Hague Elementary School create a school culture of learning through professional development.

Like Vicki, Tracey believes in the importance of having a common vision. "If you have a target to hit, it makes it easier," she suggests. "Then you can ask, 'Is this the direction we are going?' " Through regular classroom walk-throughs, Tracey asks questions that focus on teachers' professional growth plans. She provides feedback that helps teachers focus on their learning and her role as principal is clearly defined. As an instructional leader, Tracey works with teachers to help them become reflective practitioners.

At the beginning of her principalship, Tracey co-constructed a list of qualities of what counts in a good staff meeting. Collaboratively, the staff developed meeting norms and determined the purpose of their time together. Here are the Hague Elementary School's meeting norms:

     "Be on time, be on task (no cross talk), be concise, no repetition; some decisions will be referred to committees; stick to the purpose of the staff meeting: to build relationships among staff, to focus on professional development, to solve problems and make decisions."

A great deal of the time at staff meetings are now regularly spent on collaborative learning, co-planning lessons, sharing nuggets from workshops and conferences, and discussing book club readings. Informational items are handled through a Sunday night "What's Up" email with upcoming events highlighted. Because of the focus on staff learning, these regular meeting times have become protected and are valued by all.

As the school leader, Tracey felt it was important to model the sort of risk-taking and vulnerability in her own practices she was encouraging others to embrace. Learning involves stepping outside our comfort zone and putting ourselves on the line, and Tracey admits that this can be challenging for some. So she asked teachers to provide anonymous feedback on her role as the staff meeting facilitator. In the survey, she asked for specific examples of situations so she could learn to improve her leadership. By reflecting on those improvements and making her own learning transparent, Tracey provides another great model of instructional leadership in schools. Thank you, Tracey! I am eager to work with teachers in co-constructing our norms and purposes for our school.

4. Setting Targets

What does a classroom where optimal learning is taking place "look like"? This is a question Waldheim principal, Chris Mason, asked his staff to consider as they developed their professional learning plan for the year. Using the school division's "My Prairie Spirit Classroom" framework which outlines big ideas connected to engaged learning, Chris guided the staff as they collaboratively co-constructed criteria for each of the following targets of engaged learning:
  • Relationships
  • Rigour
  • Relevancy
  • Quality Assessments
As a result of their discussions, staff now have a clearer picture of what engaged learning looks like from both the student and teacher perspective. For example, one of the targets for identified by Prairie Spirit for engaged learning is a focus on relationships. Waldheim teachers have identified the followed qualities of successful relationships:

  1. Risk Taking - "students feel safe to wonder and seek assistance"
  2. Student Voice and Teacher Voice - "teacher talk to the whole class is 10-15% of class time"
  3. Student Learning Goals - "students speak knowledgeably about the class learning goals they have helped to create"
  4. Learning Relationships beyond the classroom walls - "students are connecting with experts and peers in the classroom, the school, the local community, the global community".

In addition to providing a target ("relationships are thriving when ..."), teachers also brainstormed what this might "look like/sound like" in the classroom. This is particularly helpful for Chris as he does his walk-throughs. His feedback focuses on a particular target, such as rigour or relevancy, and he makes a brief note on specially designed cards.

Students also have a chance to share their voice. For each of the big ideas connected to engagement, teachers created a corresponding student survey. By selecting strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree to statements such as: "I feel safe to participate in class by asking questions and seeking help" and "All assignments and learning activities have value in my class.", students can provide valuable feedback to the teacher on the target areas.

A similar framework applies to the administrative feedback that Chris collects from his staff. Although the statements are different ("I am encouraged and supported to do the best work I can."), the target areas are the same for all.

Thank you, Chris, for providing a great example of how targets can be used in multiple ways to support a school culture of learning!

What's Next?

As I continue to percolate the information from the Principals' Short Course, my action items are becoming much more focused and purposeful. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts about the shift to principalship. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Principals' Short Course - Part 2 - Culturally Responsive Leadership

As someone who is entering the world of educational administration, I have a lot to learn about what it means to be a leader in a school, and in particular the leader of a K-12 online school. So despite the fact that my colleagues were heading out to begin enjoying the summer break, I joined many teachers from across the province in Saskatoon to learn, to connect, to engage in conversations about schools and leadership at the Saskatchewan Principal's Short Course at the beginning of July. 

I am reflecting on the course through a series of blog posts where I think through my big "take-aways" and make some plans for implementing them into the Sun West Distance Learning Centre. This is Part 2 of my series:

Part 2 - Culturally Responsive Leadership

Saskatchewan has a young and rapidly growing Aboriginal population that is currently being under-served by our education system. This was a common message echoed by various presenters throughout the four day course.

According to Dr. Michael Cottrell from the University of Saskatchewan, the demographics in Saskatchewan is changing which has considerable implications for K-12 schools.

In his presentation, Leadership and First Nations in Saskatchewan: Insights from the Joint Task Force, Michael highlighted the gaps that currently exist in graduation rates in this province. The results are both staggering and alarming.

The message is clear: What we are doing for our Aboriginal students is clearly not working.

Keynote speaker, Chris Scribe, Coordinator of ITEP (Indian Teacher Education Program) and First Nations and Metis Programming at the University of Saskatchewan, College of Education, challenged course participants to "think differently" when considering the changes that need to be made in Saskatchewan schools to meet the needs of Aboriginal students. That includes accommodating the identities of indigenous people so that their stories and their voices are heard in classrooms.

Taking up the challenge is the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. Tim Caleval, Executive Director of the Ministry's Priority Action Team, outlined the Saskatchewan Government's strategies for improving education for Aboriginal students in this province. After interviewing students, parents and teachers, the Following Their Voices action plan is implementing a number of strategies in schools across the province. 

(Image source: Caleval's presentation at SPSC - see link above) 

As an educator, I have been aware of the wide gap in graduation rates between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal students, but now, moving into the role of principal of a K-12 online school, two questions that kept buzzing in my head were: What am I going to do to help make a difference? What role might online education have in engaging our Aboriginal youth?

In his small group session, Michael Cottrell offered seven characteristics school-based administrators should embrace to become more culturally responsive of our students' lives so that we can be effective in meeting their needs.

  1. Know the History. Link to the Now
  2. Become Aware of Privilege and Exclusion
  3. Commit to Social Justice
  4. Know and Respect Aboriginal Cultures
  5. Develop Relationships
  6. Commit to Innovation
  7. Have Courage to Engage in Difficult Conversations

1. Know the History. Link to the Now
By not only knowing the history of our Aboriginal relations in Canada and Saskatchewan, but also linking the past to our current circumstances, principals and other educators can begin to understand the impact that historical decisions continue to have on families today. Some suggested places to start learning include:

2. Become Aware of Privilege and Exclusion
In a recent post by the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, Margaret Pillay provides principals with some resources to help explore the hidden stories of First Nations history and ways to bring awareness of this past to light. 

3. Commit to Social Justice
Inequities should not be tolerated. As a role model in the school, the principal plays an important role in supporting the school in taking action. In the Sun West School Division, 26 teachers participated in Taking IT Global which inspires classroom to action. This may be one way in which schools can learn more about Aboriginal issues in education and take action to make change.

4. Know and Respect Aboriginal Cultures
Principals who see Aboriginal cultures as an educational asset and who are willing to learn more will be better positioned to enhance the academic achievements of students. In march, 2015, the University of Saskatchewan hosted a Think Indigenous Education Conference which was designed to "inspire educators to incorporate Indigenous Knowledges into the everyday practices of teaching". Videos of various presentations are available for viewing.

Or a trip to the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre's First Nations' Language Keepers Conference in Saskatchewan in November might be another place to get started. "This annual gathering is the leading national conference devoted to preserving, promoting and protecting First Nations languages and cultures. It brings together academics, knowledge keepers, master speakers, Elders, community leaders and students from across Canada and the United States." 

5. Develop Relationships
A willingness to develop strong relationships with Aboriginal students and their families is another characteristic of a principal who desires to lead change. By bringing elders into the school or taking the time to experience Aboriginal culture first hand, principals can open the door to new conversations. 

In Manitoba, the Aboriginal Education Directorate supports Aboriginal education and training by providing leadership and support for collaborating with families and communities. A number of school divisions have received funding through two initiatives:

6. Commit to Innovation
With technology at our fingertips in schools, principals can "think outside the box" and explore innovative ways to engage Aboriginal youth in learning. As principal of the Sun West Distance Learning Centre, we have the opportunity to reach First Nations students through access to a wide range of K-12 courses.

7. Have Courage to Engage in Difficult Conversations
Principals who are willing to have difficult conversations about racism and champion Aboriginal students are more likely to bring out positive change. A number of organizations are available to help support principals in starting these conversations in schools including the Saskatchewan Professional Development Unit which offers a one-day Aboriginal Awareness workshop designed to deepen teachers' understanding of Aboriginal knowledge and culture and explore the implications for the classroom. 

The Principals' Short Course was an important reminder that my role as an educational administrator is to model culturally responsive leadership and in order to do that, I need to continue to learn and to open up conversations with others about ways in which online education may empower Aboriginal students in this province. 

It is an opportunity I look forward to embracing. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Principals' Short Course: Part 1 - Vision for Instructional Leadership

At the beginning of July, I had a chance to both participate in and present at the 51st Annual Saskatchewan Principals' Short Course in Saskatoon. Presented by The Department of Educational Administration and conducted by the Saskatchewan Educational Leadership Unit (SELU), this intensive four day day course is sponsored by those with a vested interest in supporting the growth and development of principals including: the Ministry of Education, LEADS (League of Educational Administrators), Saskatchewan School Boards Association, and the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation.

As someone who is entering the world of educational administration, I have a lot to learn about what it means to be a leader in a school, and in particular the leader of a K-12 online school. So despite the fact that many of my colleagues were heading out to begin enjoying the summer break, I joined many teachers from across the province in Saskatoon to learn, to connect, to engage in conversations about schools and leadership.

After four days of learning, 26 pages of handwritten notes, a binder full of handouts, a list of online and print resources, and a full Twitter feed (#spsc2015 and @eadmspsc), I realized that I was going to have to let this information percolate before I could make sense of it and apply it to my own principalship! So, I've decided to reflect on the course through a series of blog posts where I think through my big "take-aways" and make some plans for implementing them into the Sun West Distance Learning Centre

Part 1 - A Vision for Instructional Leadership
As a former learning coach and consultant in the Sun West School Division, instructional leadership is not new to  me. In fact, it has formed the basis of my work for the past seven years. But moving that leadership into the principal's role and trying to figure out what that might "look like" in a busy school with over 40 teachers is definitely new. 

Lori Jeschke's opening keynote on instructional leadership proved to be the ideal starting point. " 'You cannot NOT model!' (McGuey, 2007). If, in order to lead, we need to be learning, what does that look and sound like?" As a Learning Superintendent in the Prairie Spirit School Division, Lori's advice was both practical and inspiring. Here are my top five "take-aways" from her presentation:
1.     You Cannot NOT Model
2.     Ask Yourself "Why"
3.     Focus on Your "Get-Tos"
4.     Lead the Learning
5.     Be Your Team's Talent Scout

1. You Cannot NOT Model
Modelling as a school-based principal involves having a vision of what quality looks like and bringing that to practice each and every day. And it means walking the talk so that our actions and words are one in the same. So, how does a school administrator ensure that he or she is walking on the right path? 

Prior to starting in my role as principal, I sent teachers five questions and asked that everyone respond to the questions via email. The purpose of those questions was to: identify the strengths of the school and the work as an online educator; list the number one challenge and area that needed improving in the upcoming school year; and develop a list of criteria for the ideal principal. Then, I took some time to sit down with each of the teachers in my new school to listen. I used teacher feedback to create a vision of the ideal principal which I plan to use to form the foundation of my own modelling this year.

Lori raised an interesting question about monitoring our progress and growth in this area. I have been listening to a number of podcasts about staying on track with goals and am in the process of creating a set of quick reflections about each of these areas to include in my daily habits. A quick check-in can certainly help ensure that I am moving towards the vision of an ideal principal. But I see that this could also be used to start my day. Here is a small sample of what that daily reflection might look like:

2. Ask Yourself "Why"
Simon Sinek's Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action challenges leaders to explore motivation before moving on to the how and the what. 

In much the same way, Lori asked principals to consider the following questions:
  • Why do I lead?
  • Why do I want to lead?
  • How will my purpose be evident to the entire learning community (how will they know)?

It's a powerful question that rests at the heart of leadership and principalship. Our table discussions revealed that we all had a common desire to lead and had skills that would help us in our roles as leaders and in supporting our staff. 

But the third question - how will my purpose be evident - led us to discussions around the vision for each of our schools. And so school leadership with a focus on the why means that vision, mission and goals must be at the forefront of all that we do. Point taken, Lori. Thank you.

3. Focus on Your "Get-Tos"
It is easy to see how the day-to-day operations of a school can be centred on dealing with the management-type tasks that arise. And over time, this work may become less stimulating and perhaps a little de-motivating for leaders. 

Lori suggests that we slightly refocus and ask ourselves, "What do we get to do today?" By re-framing the question, we are looking through a new lens, a lens that allows us to start the day with focus and purpose. In this way, even daily tasks of dealing with student and parent concerns can be understood as "I get to solve problems with others." Problem solving is a creative pursuit that can fill principals full of meaning.

She also referenced Principal Kafal his belief in the connection between vision, preparation and achievement. As principals, we get to not only envision success for students, we can help our school put the plans in place to make it happen. We get to change lives. Now that's powerful.

4. Lead the Learning
In his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Michael Fullen stresses that the role of the principal is to lead learning. Both modelling and providing the conditions for others to learn are important criteria for a principal in his or her role as instructional leader. 

In Lori's words, we need to "hold the line on learning because a person on a mission will not stop." That statement creates a powerful image of a principal doing whatever it takes to positively impact students. 
 As part of our commitment to learning, the administrator team at the Distance Learning Centre is going to be conducting a book study of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High as part of our PLT work next school year. Remember the question I asked teachers about the "ideal" principal? One of the qualities identified is the ability to give honest, meaningful feedback. Well, we are going to learn how to do that better and are turning to Twitter and our PLN to help us explore this topic. We will be tweeting out more information in the fall @SunWestDLC. We'd love to connect with you!

5. Be Your Team's Talent Scout
In addition to learning with staff, Lori also suggested that school leaders must act as talent scouts, finding the expertise on staff and showcasing the strengths of others. This, I must admit, is an easy one. There are so many great teachers at the Sun West Distance Learning Centre doing amazing things! One of the ways in which we hope to showcase our talent is by inviting teachers to contribute to our "Lunch and Learn" sessions and to share some of their tools during "Appy Hour."

SunWest School Division also has a fantastic support team including our Superintendents, Consultants, Learning Coaches, and Technology Coaches. As well, Saskatchewan is fortunate to have access to a number of resources from outside organizations such as the Saskatchewan Professional Development Unit (SPDU),  the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan and the Ministry of Education. We are going to definitely tap into others' expertise to help us grow and learn.

Instructional leadership is the foundation of my goal-setting for my work as a principal. Thanks, Lori Jeschke, for sharing your criteria for success and for inspiring me, and the other members of our administrator team, to create a vision for our school. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Connecting - Reflections on the IT Summit 2015

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” 
― Herman Melville (at Good Reads)

Earlier this week I had a chance to spend time with fellow educators and IT personnel at the IT Summit in beautiful (albeit, snowy) Saskatoon. Almost immediately, I ran into #saskedchat moderator, Kelly Christopherson (@kwhobbes), a former colleague who is now living in the bright lights, big city of Regina. I was excited to see Kelly not only because of our common interest in education, but because he also brought me a green gift - my very own #saskedchat t-shirt!

As I looked around the convention room, I spotted a couple of other educators in matching shirts. As a semi-regular contributor of the Thursday evening #saskedchat, I felt pretty comfortable in approaching these "strangers". So I introduced myself and was happy to meet @PrincipalSmart and @tgrantt face-to-face. Later, at our unofficial tweet-up, we even got a team picture to celebrate our team shirts. :)

Picture from @kwhobbes' Twitter feed

What continually impresses me about participating in online conversations on Twitter is the chance to get to know people on a different level - to connect with people's ideas and thoughts before ever meeting in person. I live on a farm and work in a rural school division. Connecting with people in the same way at during the work day is often difficult given the nature of our busy schedules. But for one hour a week, I am able to discuss issues, share links, provide words of encouragement, receive advice, and learn more from a group of inspiring educators. Thanks #saskedchat teachers for continuing to inspire me!

But the connections at the IT Summit didn't quite stop there. Vicki Davis, commonly known as @CoolCatTeacher, travelled to Saskatchewan from her home in Georgia to share her experiences through a number of high-energy presentations. I feel so grateful that I had a chance to get to know Vicki just a little bit during her time here. Vicki is clearly an amazing educator, but more importantly, she is a terrific person! Before her keynote even started on Monday morning, she walked around to tables and asked people questions about themselves and their work. Her warm welcome and southern hospitality was not only inviting, it was inspiring!

Over the two days of her stay in Saskatoon, I had a chance to chat with Vicki (we both have a farming background!) and what I learned is that she is a positive gal with a passion for helping others. I've already started to practice some of her habits (setting timers, using blocks for my to do list) and have a list of recommended readings and links to further my own learning and growth. I am so excited to continue to learn from this amazing woman!

Just a couple of farm kids :)

Making connections continued throughout the conference. By the end of my time in Saskatoon, I was able to meet people from both near and far and have already been continuing conversations on Twitter and Linked In. I re-connected with educators such as Dean Shareski (whose ideas are always challenge me to think deeply) and Kathy Cassidy (her energy and innovative spirit is contagious); with some new people such as of the vendors like Jeff  Tabacman from Cesium who were showcasing their amazing products; with IT people (including Sébastien Fillion who is travelling to the Ivory Coast this summer) and Don  Doré (whom I first met in 2005); with Ignite presenters, Carlene Walter and Jim Swan; with fellow Digital Leader and blended learning explorer, Thad Swidzinski; with our provincial digital citizenship guru, Joanna Saunders ... and the list goes on.

Oh I know, I know. I am name dropping here to make a point. And this is it ...

Connections matter. 
People matter.

How are you connecting?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Rights and Responsibilities of Digital Citizens

I was still in high school when the Canadian constitution was patriated and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became a fundamental part of law in 1982. More than a decade after the Charter was introduced, I began exploring the concept of citizenship with Grade 8 students. I remember feeling at the time that we had shifted to a society focused on our rights, but had lost some of the the understanding our corresponding responsibilities. There seemed to be a gap in understanding about the basic tenants of membership.

To address this perceived gap, I used the Discover Canada resource and spent much time discussing how fulfilling our responsibilities might "look" in our school and in our community. My hope was to inspire students to begin to get involved in citizenship on a deeper level, to increase volunteerism, to understand the rights of others. But with the idea of rights so firmly entrenched in the culture of these young learners and with limited time spent on this concept, I felt I only scratched the surface of our responsibilities as citizens.

As the space in which students now "live" has moved into a digital world, the concept of citizenship has once again been on my mind. And a familiar pattern is emerging as I see examples of users/citizens, both young and old, not fully understanding the responsibilities associated with membership. This time around it feels as though the rights have a clear victory over the responsibilities.

This digital world has been dubbed the Wild, Wild, West for its lack of supervision and rules. In in the eight years since I had a parent first come to me with a concern about bullying through texting, I have seen little change in how we teach citizens about communication in these new spaces. With minimal emphasis placed on rights and responsibilities, inappropriate online behaviour is not hidden in dark corners, but is too often part our daily interactions. And our youth are especially vulnerable to this.

So I wonder: What are the criteria for citizenship in this new frontier? What are the rights and responsibilities in online spaces? To help make sense of this, I turned to Mike Ribble's book, Digital Citizenship for Schools, where he identifies nine elements of digital citizenship, including Digital Rights and Responsibilities:

"Just as in the American Constitution where there is a Bill of Rights, there is a basic set of rights extended to every digital citizen. Digital citizens have the right to privacy, free speech, etc. Basic digital rights must be addressed, discussed, and understood in the digital world. With these rights also come responsibilities as well. Users must help define how the technology is to be used in an appropriate manner. In a digital society these two areas must work together for everyone to be productive." 

Before planning to teach these rights and responsibilities, I thought it might first be interesting to ask a larger audience to help me identify the "etc." part of Ribble's statement above.

In addition to the right to privacy and free speech, what other rights and responsibilities do we have in a digital world?

I invite your comments.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why Social Media? Because I Care

I often hear people say, "I don't do Facebook" or "I'm not interested in reading what people had for breakfast on Twitter". You probably still hear it too.

And while perhaps you would say I am a social media "junkie" - I blog, I tweet, I am on Facebook, Pinterest ... you get the idea -  I do understand the reluctance of some to engage in this strange world of online communication.

It is scary to navigate something unknown, especially without a guide. Being from rural Saskatchewan, I feel the same way when I have to take public transportation. I wonder if I am doing things right and if am going to get to my destination. Or if I am going end up somewhere I don't want to be. Navigating the digital world can cause similar feelings of anxiety.

My recommendation - Find a guide. Ask questions. That's how I got from Niagara Falls to Burlington, Ontario on the Go Bus a few weeks ago. I asked and in the process, earned a new connection in @WilliamsDanique. What a wonderful experience we had chatting about teaching and learning (and cooking) during our ride! So, for those wanting to learn about social media, find someone who is excited about it. Ask directions. Get support. Don't feel like you need to travel alone in this unknown world.

But not everyone sees the purpose of being online and using social media. They tell me that they just don't get why they would ever need to be on Twitter or Facebook. They don't "do" social media. It's just not for them. What's the point, they ask?

For me, it's simple. 

I get into the online spaces in which this next generation lives because I care.
CC Image by Wesley Fryer

There is no doubt that things are different now. Technology is now available in the palm of our hand, on our wrists, on our faces. At 17, my youngest son has never known a home without internet access. He has never lived without the ability to communicate globally through a computer and now through his smartphone, he can be connected 24/7. This is where he "lives" - through chatting, texting, and sending goofy face pictures to friends and family. He, and his generation, are connected socially in ways that I could never have imagined.

It is frightening to realize that our children are interacting with people we don't know in an online format we don't understand. So, as a parent, it makes sense to get to know that world. Because I care. I care what my own sons are doing online, what they are seeing, what they are sharing. And so, when they first started using social media (MSN chat in those days), I moved into those online spaces with them . I have guided when needed, reprimanded when necessary, and we continue to have conversations about these spaces.

Are there things I still don't know? For sure. But by being in those spaces, I hope I have a better understanding so we can talk about the things going on.

What does this mean for me as an educator? It would be easier to avoid this digital world in case I come across something I really don't want to read. To say it's uncomfortable to know that I am professionally obligated to deal with something that was posted online from a student is an understatement. It's more than uncomfortable. But it is my responsibility. So I completely understand that avoidance seems like a safer option for many. It is safer. And easier.

I am not on social media to monitor students. Instead, I get into those spaces as an educator because I care. I want to understand their digital world. So, I use Twitter to connect with a variety of people and model how this social media tool can be used for learning. We've set up groups in Facebook to communicate with parents and students. We use these tools to connect in ways that are different than face-to-face but equally important.

I use social media to model, to guide. And sometimes, I need to have conversations about appropriateness because I care about what they are doing in there. That's part of the package.

As a mother, as an educator, as a citizen, it's my responsibility to understand the world in which this next generation of learners are living, interacting, communicating. Because I care.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Do Our Students Need Us to Learn?

During this morning's skim of Twitter (part of my regular routine), this tweet by @jasonflom caught my eye:

What do our students need us to learn?

This such a great question and one that apparently Jason and his colleagues are exploring today. In Florida. That's right. Over the last few years social media has allowed an educator from Florida to share his thoughts, 140 characters at a time with the world. What Jason likely does not know is that his words resonated with an educator in rural Saskatchewan on a Wednesday morning. (I still get excited thinking about the ways in which Twitter allows for the connecting of ideas from across the globe!)

So what exactly do our students need us to learn?  Given the changes in education in terms of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology, there is potential for this list to be overwhelming to not only the new teacher, but the veteran as well. Here's what I mean ...

 In my first years as a middle level teacher, I was asked to teach Grade 7 and 8 Science. My English/History background did not prepare me for leading a group of students through the world of plate tectonics, mixtures and solutions, resources and their environmental impact, and so on. You get the idea. I needed to have some background knowledge of the content in my curriculum. And fast! So I spent much my summer months reading science books so that I could be familiar with the concepts my students would be learning. Basic understanding of content? Check.

I also was tossed into a Math classroom where constructivist learning was part of the package. Again, I didn't have a sniff about teaching math in this manner (or teaching and/or doing math at all in fact). I was born of an era where the teacher showed me how to do the work and I practiced over and over again. Until I got it. Now, as the teacher, I needed to learn how the exploration and reflection sections of each lesson were intended to support learning. I needed to figure out how to help students who were struggling find new ways to think about math. And then, there were the math manipulatives ... Yikes! And so I watched the video tutorials that accompanied my math teacher's guide and read books about how to teach math with this "new approach". I learned the theory behind the instruction in order to prepare myself for helping my students. Basic understanding of teaching strategies? Check.

Somewhere amid those opening years, I also received a SmartBoard in my classroom. It was a Friday morning when the board was installed and my students and I spent the day exploring the tool. I remember handing the Google Earth controls over to a Grade 7 student because the whole spinning world made me slightly nauseous. I was excited about the potential that this new tool had for engaging my students, so I spent countless hours searching for resources I could show my students. The first animation I ever showed was about glacier movement - advancing, retreating, stationary. The kids were enthralled. But I didn't really know how to use the tool for much other than showing "stuff". My limited time was spent searching for resources. Basic understanding of SmartBoard and internet searching? Check.

But what about developing sound assessments? And incorporating differentiation strategies? What about the whole new world of online navigation and digital citizenship? How could I also learn to meet the needs of my students who were on support plans, each with a different diagnosis and different ways to support them? And don't forget the valuable time spent participating in the volunteer activities in my school which help create a sense of community, of belonging.

There was so much to learn. Frankly, it had the potential to be overwhelming. And in many ways, after 20+ years in this profession, it still could be. I often feel like a new teacher with the multitude of educational ideas available to me every morning through my Twitter skim.

But I choose not to be overwhelmed, but  instead, I choose to be inspired. It's a small thing, I know, but for me, it is an effective strategy for dealing with educational change.

I have realized there is no "TOP 10 LIST OF THINGS TEACHERS NEED TO LEARN". I am sure that Jason and his colleagues are going to talk about that today too. Instead, there is a learning journey that we all need to embrace, individually, based on our own needs, our student's needs. Just as there is no "one size fits all" learning for the students in our classrooms, the same holds true for us as educators.

So, let's change the question slightly and ask, "What do our students need to know about our learning?" 

  • Students, know that as teachers, we are always growing, changing, improving, enhancing what we do in our classrooms. It's part of what it means to be an educator.
  • We are also learners. I invite you to learn with us. After all, we're in this learning business together and discovery is much more rewarding if it is shared.
  • Just like you, there is a lot for us to learn. All of this takes time. This might mean we take small steps at times, but as long as we are moving forward, that's okay.
  • Neither of us is always going to get it right the first time. But, like you, we are going to do our best to make it better next time. Be patient with us as we are with you. Improvement is our goal too. Just as my first years teaching Science and Math and using my SmartBoard showed me, there were always ways to be better. And those improvements came gradually, over time, and with experience. While I wanted to be great right away, it simply does not work that way.
  • With so many expectations placed on both of us, we can feel overwhelmed. But together, let's choose to let our learning inspire us rather than bring us down.

Teachers, whatever is on your Top 10 list, I hope that you will also approach this with enthusiasm, with energy, with inspiration.