Teacher as Connector

Teacher as Connector

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Over the past two days I’ve had many discussions with educators about the idea of “Teacher as Connector“.

It’s not a new idea but I do think it is an important part of being a teacher in today’s digital world.

How do you help your students connect to others?

As a teacher, do you have a network that you can use to help your students connect to content, ideas, people, and places when they need it? Whether it’s talking about mountains and Skyping someone in Colorado, or studying Eastern Religions and connecting to a school in China or Thailand?

In today’s digitally connected world, the connections you can make for your students are as important as the tasks you give them in the classroom.

Take the example of Haley, a 5th grade student at my school in Bangkok. She wrote a blog post about a science experiment she did in class. Her teacher and I decided it was a blog post worthy of an audience. Using our connections via Twitter and Facebook we were able to give her an audience of teachers and students around the world. Not only that, Allanah, a teacher in New Zealand, took Haley’s blog post and directions and did the same experiment with students at her school. Because Allanah was a connected teacher, she was able to create a learning opportunity for her students as well.

Being a connected teacher can be accomplished in many ways. Twitter and Facebook are just two ways to be connected. You can also join any number of educational Ning’s that are out there. The more ways you have to connect, the greater the opportunity for you as a teacher to be a connector for your students.

As we head into the last day of the BLC10 conference and as a new school year fast approaches, think about ways that you can be a connector for your kids. No matter what your role is in your school, being a connector will benefit your students in some shape or form. Not to mention your own learning that will happen along the way.

That’s Really Hard Work

That’s Really Hard Work

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Michael Wesch - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
Image by poptech via Flickr

Community First

Michael Wesch’s keynote this morning was simply breathtaking. In the follow up breakout session someone asked him: “How do you stop students seeing themselves as students, and as collaborators?”

Mike sighed, put both hands on the podium and said: “That’s really hard work.”

He went on to explain “community first.” He uses the first two weeks of class to build a sense of community and togetherness in a shared quest to solve a real world problem. A problem he himself doesn’t know the answer to.

“Doing crazy things together creates community.”

Micheal plans his most passionate and enthusiastic lectures for those first two weeks. And he has his students do zany ice-breaking activities to help them get to know each other and break through the veneer of passivity they arrive in his class with. But it’s not just about having fun; these activities (like human scavenger hunts) all have a serious edge to them. They have to see that they’ll have fun lerning here, but we are working hard at learning.

The Lesson Design Arc: schedule-research-paper-video

The kids begin by co-creating a schedule on a wiki for the research they’ll do to solve the problem they’ve decided to work on. They begin by digging into the problem and reading everything they can on it. Summaries of all their reading are compiled on the wiki. Typically they’ll read over 90 article, paper, or books in the first week of class as they do this. (In more typical University classes they read about three articles in the first week.) Mike guides them, having a little deeper experience in the field then they do, by suggesting other sources they might wish to explore. They continue this research and co-create a research paper for publication. When that’s all done, they create very brief condensed video summaries of their research, submit them to Mike who then weaves them together into a brief (5 min?) video.All this is only possible because of the community building work they do together in the first few weeks of the course.

There’s a lot more to all this, I’m just summarizing (his integrated, collaborative, calibrated peer review assessment scheme – which goes well beyond <– that link back there – is brilliant), but that’s the broad strokes takeaway I got.

When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes, when people work together closely on a real world problem things wrong. People get upset. Students goof off in class.

When that happens Mike intervenes using a ritual he learned from an African(?) tribe. It’s very similar to the Talking Stick ritual used by many First Nations people of Canada. They use pencils instead. Anyone who is holding the pencil let’s go of the little voice in their head that says “You can’t say that.” and speaks from the heart about what’s upset them. The rest of the group talks with them about it. They don’t put the stick down until they’ve resolved whatever the problem was. Mike usually goes first. Sometimes here cries while he’s talking to his 400+ students. Then the next person in the group takes their turn.

A Pedagogy to Aspire To

Isn’t that an amazing example of “intense imagination, motivation, emotion, and thought?” I had wanted to write about the amazing conversations going here: in the halls, in sessions, over lunch, every time someone stops me to talk really. But this morning’s keynote. Just breathtaking. Good teaching is what comes from building strong relationships between teachers and students; relationships with a serious educational edge. (I hear echoes of John Seely Brown in this.)

I’ve got to think more about how to weave together such a set of diverse sensitivities into my teaching. How do you build a culture of caring in your class?

Sustainable Learning through hyperlinks

Sustainable Learning through hyperlinks

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When someone questions the power and value of a conference I think it’s fair to consider the ROI. For me, those conversations need to be able to continue online for a long time after the conference is over. The connections and informal discussions are valuable but need to be sustainable.

Attending BLC in 2007 was my the first experience attending a conference where I had “met people’s brains before I’d met their faces”. (Kevin Honeycutt) Because I had spent the previous 2 years posting and sharing online as did many of the presenters and participants, It was a real reunion. Never having gone to summer camp, my wife, told me that’s what summer camp is like. The conversations I had in those three days were some of the most powerful, insightful and challenging I’d ever had. To this day, I can recall specific conversations that I’m still working my way through.

Photo by Marco Torres: http://www.flickr.com/photos/torres21/4788962760/

BLC has from the start been a conference about global learning and collaboration. The numbers of intentional opportunities to network and share is unlike most conferences. People are genuinely interested in how you do things in your district and what schools are like where you come from. But to sustain this learning beyond the final day of the conference there has to be hyperlinks.

Hyperlinks have built the web and connected people. During the course of the three days of the conference, thousands of links have been shared in presentations, on twitter and on this blog and other blogs. Using the the twitter hashtag of #blc10 alone, you’ll discover enough ideas and links to chew on for quite some time. A blog search for BLC10 results in almost 1,000 results. These hyperlinks are allowing learning to be sustainable but more than than, they are links from people and we now are able to connect with the people behind the links and continue conversations of learning for as long as we’d like. Michael Wesch, in his keynote talked about connecting these artifacts with people. And by the way, if you want more from Wesch, and who wouldn’t, head over to youtube to view a number of his past presentations and work.

In my presentations I make a point of sharing my contact information not simply as a courtesy but because I really want to have conversations continue. I hope that most of the 75 minute sessions you attend leave you with as many questions as answers. If they simply had all the answers, I wonder if they might be better learned at home or individually.

I’m guessing there are about 1,000 participants at BLC this year. I wonder how many have a plan to sustain their learning with people beyond Friday? It’s simply a matter of leaving and finding a hyperlink.

Reactions to Michael Wesch’s Keynote

Reactions to Michael Wesch’s Keynote

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The following blog post was written by Geoff Gevalt, Executive Director and Founder, Young Writers Project, Inc. We thought his reflection was so amazing, that we have gotten permission to share it with you. Enjoy.

At various times in Michael Wesch’s presentation on Thursday, I felt alternately inspired, wowed, encouraged, thrilled and out-of-date, inadequate, woefully behind and, frankly, not as smart as I thought I was. Way not smart. I found myself wanting to create a video that would go viral, to redoing all our software so it could be half as cool or to help students create a project that would change the world.

Michael Wesch should never drink coffee and I wondered how in the world he survived his summers in New Guinea. Then I realized that is what ALL of us need — a visit to New Guinea, a time when we can just stop and listen and learn. That we — not just the girl in the Dove commercial — are getting bombarded, much as the presentation did, with thousands of ideas, and images, and entreaties. Do this, use that, get your kids over here. And that is, in fact, what makes us feel hopelessly inadequate and behind and ignorant. In today’s classrooms there is such pressure to improve test scores, meet mandates, teach to curriculum AND jump into technology. There is also an intense pressure to make a difference, and, on a global scale, to gain a following, to change things. And to do it, we must have 45,367,578 views on our YouTube video which we create with students in one of our classes with the help of several kids in Ghana, Australia and Beijing.

Which was not Michael’s point. I know that. But we are emotional beings, I am an emotional being, and he DID make me want to leap up and change the world. But where? And how? And where do I start?

Which brought me back to what I do, what Young Writers Project does, and what teachers do, and how we only need to go viral in our classroom, in our world. We don’t have to connect with the world. Not yet. There is a first step and while Michael, as he noted, is dealing with a different level of students — college — he is also dealing with a different level of knowledge and capability and a very different culture.

K-12 is restrictive — it is restricted by lack of equipment, lack of trained digital teachers and a culture that emphasizes fear and blocks useful Internet sites galore that, in fact, the kids gravitate to as soon as they leave school. K-12 is restricted by a culture that is used to doing things the old way, that does not have a sense of technology or new media and that is governed by fears — that an angry parent will come in to rant about how their student saw something inappropriate in school, that federal Internet safety guidelines will not be followed, that a kid will post something inappropriate and mean, that a teacher will not know how to do something — so won’t try or, at least, enlist his/her students to give it a try.

In reality K-12 schools are not as far along as colleges or Kansas State University or, particularly, Michael Wesch’s classroom. That’s OK. I’ll say it again. That’s OK.

K-12 schools can — and must — build the foundation by helping students — and teachers — take the first steps and learn basic skills in digital awareness, creativity and media. K-12 schools can teach students how to communicate, how to research, how to function on the Web with each other.

And K-12 schools can teach students how to write.

Because, and this is where I felt good about what Michael Wesch was saying, good writing is absolutely criticical to function in the new media world. Everything, including the videos, that Michael showed involved writing — individual writing, collaborative writing, creative writing. It involved revision and editing and vetting. It was the foundation for all the work he does, and you do and the global digital world does.

And that made me feel better, less inadequate, more with it. So I found myself embracing the exhiliration I — and everyone — felt form Michael’s presentation. I was thrilled by the talk, the sheer volume of activity and achievement and knowledge. I was exchilarated by by the connectiveness of it all and by the sense that if Shawn Ahmed can make a difference, we all can make a difference. Just by doing it.

So we, as K-12 educators, can get the kids started. We can create digital spaces for the students to write, collaborate, create, use media and build community. We can break down walls, we can learn new things with the kids. We can teach them how to be civil with each other online, informed about what they are engaged in and connected to what’s happening outside the classroom. We can teach them to do podcasts and slideshows and videos. Or, at least, we can get them to teach us how to do podcasts and slideshows and videos, in school.

And then we can send them to Kansas State University.

Geoffrey Gevalt runs a nonprofit in Vermont that works with students and teachers to help students engage in writing, get better at it and publish their best work and we do it all in digital spaces. For more: Go to youngwritersproject.org, ywpschools.net or digitalteachers.net.


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