It’s about story… and connection

It’s about story… and connection

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(A colleague of mine says I need to put a disclaimer on this post — affirming this is a true story, because when I told her about it, she didn’t believe me.)

Yesterday afternoon I presented for the first time as a mainstream BLC presenter. For me, this was nothing short of a VERY BIG DEAL. My session was about data visualization. In short, how new technologies and transparent access to real-world data make it possible to “democratize” visualization. We focused on a site called Many Eyes, the best known application of which is Wordle.

I decided to frame my presentation around myself as a learner, because I’m not the stereotypical person (e.g. statistician, economist) you might expect to geek out over “charts and graphs.” My themes, as such, were “curiosity” and “story,” because that’s what drives me as a learner and meaning-maker. I was hoping for (trusting!) my participants to connect my “presentation story” to their own contexts and lives.

One of my examples of data “telling a story” involved survival on the Titanic. A particular visualization showed that all the children who perished were in Third Class, and we considered the possible meanings and reasons for that. But the comments included a note about a little girl in first class who died, suggesting the data was wrong. However, it gave no source or details. So this became an exercise in information literacy — finding the truth.

I searched for the manifest online and found a family with a little girl. Sure enough, a two-year-old girl from First Class, Helen Loraine Allison (called Loraine), died along with her parents aboard the Titanic. The nanny had taken her baby brother and boarded a lifeboat without telling the family. Mrs. Allison was put in a lifeboat with Loraine, but refused to leave the ship without her son, so she stepped out. I showed participants a photograph of Loraine and her baby brother, reinforcing the theme: “Data tells a story.”  In this case, a very human one. From a “matrix chart” to the fate of an individual child. (And, scene!)

I then asked my participants to explore the Many Eyes site, to “test drive the possibilities.” While they were working, a woman named Cindy approached me and said “Now I need to tell you the rest of the Titanic story.” She then shared that the Allisons were her family, that Loraine was named for her grandmother, and that she had the original photograph that I had displayed. The Allisons nearly missed boarding the Titanic because Mrs. Allison had forgotten her passport. She also told me that some years after the tragedy, some people brought a child to her family, claiming (fraudulently) it was Loraine, and that she had been raised by nuns!

My follow-up slide to everyone’s exploration of Many Eyes contained the question “What did you discover?” I practically Snoopy-danced waiting to share Cindy’s story with the group. I couldn’t have planned for such a gift! And now my third graders, who study Titanic, may be able to interview Cindy on [insert tool here — whatever works!] and authentically experience the “story in the data.” It really is a web of connections.

I have been part of many conversations about the fear of technology dividing us from each other.  But my gut feeling (and personal experience) has been that it can (and does) powerfully connect us. In his compelling, moving keynote this morning, I think Michael Wesch had it right — leveraging these new tools for “dark or light” is really up to us. What will we create and share? How will we connect? What stories will we tell?

Headed to the front row…

Headed to the front row…

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BLC is an environment and learning culture like no other that I’ve experienced in my professional life.  Where else do our teachers sit alongside us as co-learners, asking for our ideas, and working as colleagues to unravel some of what makes teaching with new literacies practices so complex (and exciting)?  We are all learners here.  And, maybe that is why I woke up well ahead of the alarm this morning – shot out of bed – and was ready for the learning to continue (no matter what the clock said).

Or, it could be that I’m headed to the front row for this morning’s keynote with Prof. Michael Wesch.

We learned from Ben Zander’s keynote last year that there is power in sitting in the front row, in learning with “shining eyes,” and in, just maybe, being so engaged that you aren’t even fully sitting in that seat.  A confession – I’m not usually the front row girl.  I’m usually closer to a door as I’m half present, checking my email, popping out for a phone call, or rushing out early to set up for a presentation set to begin as soon as the keynote ends.  Not today.  Today, I’m eager to learn from one of my biggest teachers.

When I last saw Prof. Wesch speak (at a small venue at Virginia Tech in 2008), he effortlessly rattled off a sentence that I’ve spent the better part of two years attempting to meaningfully unravel and translate into meaningful classroom energy, offering “this information environment is not just a download but an upload world – we need to prepare students to create their world and to do so as not just knowledgeable but knowledge-able thinkers.”

Perhaps of bigger importance – as much as he is lauded for his work in engaging learners in his classrooms, Prof. Wesch continues to refine his pedagogy.  Yes, he teaches in large lecture-halls, but the core of his pedagogy resonates across grade levels.  He shared in that VT talk that, “students learn what they care about, from people they care about and who, they know, care about them.”  No matter our technological literacies or levels of expertise, I think that this is exactly what unites us as a learning community here at BLC – we work each day to REALLY SEE kids.  We value the multiple literacies that our students bring into our classrooms.  We know what it means to learn together and co-construct what it means to teach and learn in this ever-changing and rich new media landscape.  Together, we are teachers.

Enough writing.  Time to get that seat.  See you there.

Overcoming Our Fears

Overcoming Our Fears

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When it comes to keynote speakers, nobody can ever match the line-up that the November Learning team puts together for BLC. Once again an amazing line up of thinkers outside of K-12 Education stretching us to think where we need to be taking kids and schools.

Mitch Resnick opened the conference with a very simple message:

Students should be creating on the web

I couldn’t agree more and not just creating for themselves and their classmates, but for the world. Using Scratch as his basis for his talk, Resnick took us on a journey of how students are using Scratch to create, share, remix, and collaborate on creating some pretty cool projects, most of them outside of school.

Resnick’s message aligned perfectly with an article I read in Inc. Magazine last week titled: Revitalizing the American Dream. A fascinating read on how entrepreneurship needs to be revitalized in America.

It’s important to note the view point in which I’m coming from on this next bit. A little history on me: I’ve lived overseas for the past 8 years and when people ask me where I’m from..I hesitate, as do most expats. It’s a hard question to answer. I’m an American and proud to be one, but in the past 8 years America has felt less and less like “home” and more and more like a foreign land. Over these last 8 years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit America only during the summer holidays and at the same time visit 35 other countries.

What I have observed being a some-what outsider to America is the fear that has captivated our country. A fear that I believe is stifling creativity in the country, in our schools, and in our daily lives.

What saddens me most is this country was founded on the idea of anyone can make it. The “American Dream” is written into our Declaration of Independence.

In the American Dream, first expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931, citizens of every rank feel that they can achieve a “better, richer, and happier life.”[1] The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[2] (Wikipedia, 07/14/2010)

(Too bad the writers didn’t include an unfiltered Internet in that!)

Does this still hold true? Do kids today feel like they can grow up to be anything within our schools? The same schools that block much of the content that allows them to be creative, to communicate with others, and to create opportunities for themselves?

“There’s no way my district will ever let us use any of these social tools, they’re scared”

I’m sure many of you have either said this or have heard someone who has said this.

Alan November kicked off the conference today with one simple message:

We need to break down the Firewall fear

The same country that believes in free speech and the freedom of the press is the same country with some of the most restrictive filtering systems in its schools.

I lived for three years in Shanghai, China behind what is known as the “Great Firewall“. As much press as the “Great Firewall” gets for censoring some information and some tools, it is less restrictive than most filtering systems here in American Schools.

We need to break through this culture of fear, we need to empower students to make decisions, to analyze and evaluate good content and learn how to avoid the bad stuff. We need to empower students to protect themselves.

Mitch Resnick asked the question: How can we help students become makers of things in the digital world?

To do this we must first overcome our fear of putting student content out on the open web. It’s not as scary of a place as the media makes it out to be. At my school (International School Bangkok) we have over 1,000 student blogs with over 6,000 blog posts. In the two years we’ve been using blogs we have not had one bad comment or one bad blog post. Yes students get spam comments from time to time, and much like the spam they get in their e-mail they just delete it (Have you ever heard a student complain about spam? They don’t, it’s just a part of digital life that they’re used to).

It’s not just making things in the digital world, because making thing is only half the battle. The other half is finding ways to share those artifacts with the world. Creating something isn’t fun unless you can share it. Very rarely do we create anything just for ourselves. We create things to be shared with others, to share with others, and to be proud of. Once we overcome the fear of access we must overcome the fear of sharing.

Of course once we share our digitally made creations they can be remixed and as Resnick stated, “Being remixed should be an honor.”

We should be encouraging our students to remix, to use, and collaborate with others on ideas. We should be encouraging students to join Facebook groups around a cause, or remixing a Scratch game, or editing a Wikipedia article. Being remixed is an honor, it’s having someone take your blog posts and enhance it with their own ideas, it’s being retweeted on Twitter, and being talked about in a podcast.

Creativity and fear do not mix. Trying to be creative in a culture of fear is nearly impossible. It’s difficult for teachers and it’s difficult for students.

Adora Svitak ended the day on the same note in which it started. This time coming from the mouth of a 12 year old, Adora talked about how our fear of the tools as teachers, our fear of change, is blocking what she calls innovative classrooms. If we are to be innovative in our schools, as well as society, we must overcome our fears of the unknown. If we truly want our students to be creative and we believe that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” then we need to overcome our fear of the Internet and embrace the global audience that awaits.

Full Brain after first Day at BLC

Full Brain after first Day at BLC

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I have had a great first day of the conference, but my brain is full. The day started with an interesting keynote by Mitch Resnick, the inventor of Scratch. I do a lot with Scratch at my school and it was wonderful to see all of the projects that students are doing with the Scratch software. Mitch pointed out that good technology should have a low floor, so that it is easy to get started with, a high ceiling, so that students can take it far, and a wide walls, so that students can follow their own interests. Scratch certainly has that and I think it is a great rubric for evaluating any software.

In my second session I was not the smartest person in the room with Dean Shareski. School is no longer the primary place for learning. He asked the great question, what does it mean to be a life long learner? How do we move past an educational model that is tethered in time and place. Students have already moved there, when will schools follow?

In Jeff Utecht’s session on Blended Learning, he showed us how his school is using blogs as online portfolios of their work over their entire school career. He suggests finding a container that works for you, whether it be a blog, a wiki or a ning, and using that to hold student work. He also encouraged us to be connectors for our students to use our own networks to help network our students and expose their work to a wider audience.

Finally, I learned about different iPad apps at Seth Bowers’s session. He showed us too many to talk about, but he nicely posted a list here.

If you aren’t at the conference, you can follow a lot of what is going on by searching #blc10 on Twitter or checking out the delicious bookmarks tagged BLC10. If you are here, I hope you will leave a comment and or a link and share some of the highlights of your first day!

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