Learning to Learn by Learning – a Reflection on a Collaborative Project

In a post a few months ago I mused on the idea of providing time for teachers to tinker and explore. My feelings were that like the students we teach, we too all have areas of interests that we never quite get a chance to unpack. I was reminded of this again recently by +Edna Sackson who spoke about enlivening a professional development day by empowering the voices of the staff at her school and giving them a chance to present, rather than simply bringing in outside providers. Although I have experienced this to some degree in regards to ICT at my school, where we ran a session where various staff provided different sessions, I have never really heard of it been offered as a whole school initiative. I was therefore left wondering, why don’t more staff share and collaborate, whether online or off?
 
 
A point of collaboration that I have been involved in this year was the development of a conference presentation with +Steve Brophy. As teachers we often talk about collaboration, yet either avoid doing it or never quite commit ourselves to process. Some may work with a partner teacher or as a part of a team, but how many go beyond this, stepping out of the comfort zone, and the walls of their school, to truly collaborate in the creation of a whole project?
 
Having spoken about the power of tools like Google Apps for Education to support and strengthen collaboration and communication, I decided that what I really needed to do to take the next step was to stop preaching and actually get out there and actually model it. I really wanted to work with someone in not only presenting a range of tools that make collaboration more possible, but I wanted to use those tools to actually collaborate and create a presentation from scratch.
 
The first time I met Brophy was online. The +Ed Tech Crew ran a Google Hangout at the end of 2013 focusing on the question: what advice would you give a new teacher just appointed as an ICT coordinator? I put down my thoughts in a post, Steve commented and wrote a response of his own. It was these two perspectives, different in some ways, but the same in others, that brought us together.
 
Since then we have built up a connection online – on Twitter, in the margins of a document, within blog posts themselves, via a few emails – growing and evolving the conversation each step of the way. For example, Steve set me the 11 question blog challenge, which he had already taken the time to complete himself. We were lucky enough to meet face-to-face when we both presented at Teachmeet at the Pub in February.
 
What I think clicked in regards to working with Brophy was that although we teach in different sectors, coming from different backgrounds, we shared an undeniable passion – student learning and how technology can support and enhance this or as +Bill Ferriter would have it, ‘make it more doable‘. We therefore decided to put forward a proposal for the +Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria conference around the topic of ‘voices in education’. Interestingly, once the submissions were accepted those wishing to present were encouraged to connect and collaborate with other members in the stream, rather than work in isolation. However, we already were.
 
In regards to planning and collaborating, it was all pretty ad hoc. A few comments in an email, brainstorming using a Google Doc, catching up via a Google Hangout, building our presentation using OneNote (click for PDF). Most importantly though, there were compromises at each step along the way. This was not necessarily about either being right or wrong, but about fusing our ideas together. So often I feel that we plan presentations with only our own thoughts in mind. Although we may have an idea of our intended audience, nothing can really replace the human element associated with engaging with someone else in dialogue.
 
In regards to the substance of our actual presentation, I put forward the idea of dividing it into Primary and Secondary. However, as things unfolded, this seemed counter-intuitive, for voices are not or should not be constrained by age. So after much dialogue we came upon the idea of focusing on the different forms of connections that occur when it comes to voices in and out of the classroom. We identified three different categories:

 

  • Students communicating and collaborating with each other 
  • Students and teachers in dialogue about learning 
  • Teachers connecting as a part of lifelong learners 
A part of the decision for this was Brophy‘s work in regards to Digital Leaders. This focus on students having a voice of there own really needed to take some pride of place, especially as much of my thoughts had been focusing on the engagement between students and teachers.
 

Listening to Voices – FULL PRESENTATION – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires
 
The next point of discussion was around the actual presentation. In hindsight, I fretted so much about who would say what and when, as well as what should go in the visual presentation. This is taken for granted when you present by yourself as you say everything. However, when you work with someone else it isn’t so simple. The irony about the presentation was that so often plans are often dispersed in an effort to capture the moment. This is exactly what happened and I feel that it worked well. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to stick to the slides, because somehow that is the way it has to be, even though that way is often a concoction in itself. The other thing to be said is that the slides also allow people to engage with the presentation in their own time, in their own way. I sometimes feel that this is a better way of thinking about them.
 
The best aspect about working collaboratively with someone was that by the time we presented we knew each others thoughts and ideas so well that it meant that if there was something that one of us overlooked then the other could simply jump in and ellaborate. This was best demonstrated in our shortened presentation for the Scootle Lounge, where instead of delivering a summary of what we had already done we instead decided to go with the flow. The space was relaxed with beanbags and only a few people, therefore it seemed wrong to do an overly formal presentation. Focusing on the three different situations, we instead bounced ideas off each other and those in the audience, for surely that is what voice and expression should actually be about?
 
After growing our presentation together, the challenge we set for others was to reach out and connect, whether it is online or face to face. Contribute, collaborate and be open to new perspectives and be prepared to be inspired and grow as a learner.
 
So, how have you collaborated? What did you learn? What is it that holds you back? Feel free to share below.

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The Tree – A Metaphor for Learning

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND) flickr photo by sachman75: http://flickr.com/photos/sacharules/7431640808
 
I remember in Year Four Ms. Bates teaching us about how trees grew. She explained that they reach to the sun and it is for that reason that they are not always straight. I am sure there is more to it than this, but Ms. Bates story really stuck with me, maybe because of its simplicity, but I think because it completely changed the way that I looked at the world around me. Thinking about it today makes me think that learning might be the same.
 
I remember when my wife and I moved into our house we planted a series of lilly pillies down the side of property. The thought was that they would provide some screening and a bit more privacy. Clearly we weren’t going to let them grow to their potential height of 100 metres as the tag suggested that they could in their natural surroundings, rather we would mould and shape them. As a plant, they are not only hardy, but they grow relatively straight and never lose their foliage. 
Since planting them, it has been interesting watching them grow. The first thing that I learnt was that they were not all the same stock, with two distinct different types, while one seems to have an ailment which affects the leaves, meaning that although it continues to grow, the leaves often curl up and bubble. 
 
Initially we staked the trees to support them, but also to make sure that they all looked the same. It did not take long for the trees at the end of property to outgrow their supports. Whether it be due to the quality of soil, the fall of the land or direct access to both the morning and evening sun, they both prospered quickly.
 
In regards to the other trees, they have each travelled their own journey. Growing ever so slowly, with some even giving up the ghost. They would often depend on additional support. No matter how much fertilizer I have given them, how many times I have pruned them in the hope of spurring on new growth, provided them with additional water, they continue to develop at their pace, in their own way, although each looking similar, but also each looking different in their own ways. No matter how much I tried to shape them, they still manage to do their own thing.
 
I think that in some respect learning is comparable with the growth of a tree. Too often we wonder why students are not straight and elegant, that they don’t learn in the prescribed manner. Too often we only recognise the trunk, when in fact many trees have numerous branches in order to help them prosper, some even without any discernible trunk at all. 
 
In an interview with the +Ed Tech Crew+Alec Couros made the suggestion that to think about MOOC’s in regards to drop-outs and success rates, fails to recognise all of the other learning that we don’t always recognise. In the same way, trying to control, manage and structure learning can stifle the potential and possibility. Although a garden may look nice and suit our own purposes, a forest has little constraint and allows the world to blossom to its full potential.

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I Blog Therefore I Am?

There seems to have been a few blogs bouncing around in my feeds of late. These include Deb Hicks‘ ‘Why Blog’, Tom Whitby’s ‘Why Blogs and Who Needs Them Anyway’ and Peter DeWitt’s ‘The Benefits of Blogging’. It kind of occurred to me that I hadn’t really ever stated, nor really thought about, why I have chosen to blog. I have therefore decided to have a go at providing some of my reasons:

  • Scratching an itch. Often while reading, there are things that stick out, that prop the ears, the spike the imagination, that remain like an itch. A blog is a way of  responding to these things, somehow alleviating the irritation.
  • Being connected. I love being connected, following various threads of thought, commenting, tweeting and reaching out to others, but sometimes a responding needs to be something more substantial. A blog is one avenue that allows this.
  • Critical engagement. I read on the wall in a coordinators office the other day the statement that ‘behaviour unchallenged was behaviour accepted’. I kind of feel that the same can be said about ideas. Online environments allow for encounters of all kinds, a part of this meeting of ideas is a need to critique. Not so that we may be ‘right’, rather that we may be wrong, in order to become better. As Seth Godin puts it in talking about ‘failing often’: “Fail often. Fail in a way that doesn’t kill you. This is the only way to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
  • Life long learning. What I love most about writing a blog is that it allows a space to follow through on different points of learning, a kind of thought experiment, a place to grow ideas, in order that I may develop further. At its heart, a blog allows for the cultivation of seeds of inquiry, exploring and discovering what they may produce.
  • Lead by example. J. Hillis Miller once posed the question: “How can we teach reading if we are not readers ourselves?” I think the same argument can be applied to tools for working in the 21st century. I do not think that ‘teachers’ have to be in control, but they do need to be the ‘lead learner’ as Joe Mazza would put it. To me, that means getting involved from the inside – testing, trialling, questioning, understanding – not just commenting from the outside, and especially not just when you are forced to.
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Here are some of the reasons why I choose to blog. Although I am sure there are more, it is at least a start. So what are the different reasons you blog?


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Reading Conferences, Who’s Problem Is It Anyway?

Conferencing, the CAFE Way

A few years ago daily conferencing sessions came to the classroom with a whirlwind of change. Along with a plethora of comprehension strategies, it was argued by the local region that regular reading and direct teacher instruction would lead to an overall improvement in student reading levels. This change was all based around the work of Gail Boushey and Joan Moser and their book The CAFE Book: Engaging All Students in Daily Literary Assessment and Instruction.
 
 
Boushey and Moser divide the act of reading into four clear areas: comprehension, accuracy, fluency and expanding vocabulary. This is where the acronym, CAFE, comes from. Associated with the focus on the different areas of reading, the program also has a big emphasis on making thinking visible, particularly through the use of tracts. Overall, there has been many successes since the initial implementation, the most obvious of which is that students now sit and read uninterrupted for fifteen minutes each day. However, looks can sometimes be deceiving, for when you dig just beneath the surface, there is an issue that seems to be raising up again and again, the issue being the lack of responses and deep student engagement with the program.
 

Conferencing, Whose Problem Is It?

If you go back to Boushey and Moser, their program was originally devised to be run for an hour a day – something not possible in a Secondary environment – where you would meet with four students, therefore meeting with every student at least every fortnight. In the Secondary classroom, the time allocated to reading only allows for one student conference per day. Subsequently, you are only able to see each student maybe twice a term. One of the problems that arises with this is that students can go for a month without conferring with a teacher, but more importantly, actually responding to the text. For many students, the time spent with the teacher is the only time that they ‘respond’ to their texts in any sort of meaningful and explicit manner. Even though responding is stipulated as a requirement at the start of each year and set as a ‘goal’ for many students through the conferencing process, a lot of students simply ignore it as there is no direct consequence. Before I move on, I just wish to clarify what I mean by ‘responding’. To me responding can be anything ranging from using tracks to record new words to writing reviews of their books once they have completed a text. Basically, any form of explicit action taken while reading, in regards to the conferences, this action is usually in a verbal manner. This all begs the  question, whose problem is this? We talk about problems all the time and finding answers and solutions. However, the issue with this problem is that no one quite owns it. Without any direct ties to curriculum, a part from an informal association with English, who owns it? Does the problem reside with the teacher facilitating the conference and setting the goals or with the student reading but not responding?
 

 

Real and Imaginary Reading

One of the big criticisms that students often raise is that ‘leaving tracks’ is not real reading, that is, it is not natural to stop reading midstream to jot down a question or make a connection. Firstly, I’d argue that many of our habits are learnt and not necessarily natural. While secondly, It is not the ‘done thing’ amongst teachers either in the classroom or within their personal reading. I maybe wrong, but I know many teachers who practise a ‘do as I say, not do as I do’ approach to such learning. This may work with tasks where the explicit goal is set within the task through assessment rubrics. However, this does not necessarily work when the task at hand is open-ended, primarily driven by the student and does not have a clear end in sight.
 
Originally, I thought that the answer was to create a collaborative document using Google Drive to share the goals and touch base with students in between conferences by getting them to record their responses. However, what I found was that most students who I conferred with still showed little interest in responding, let alone placing their responses in the document.
 
One of the biggest hurdles that I have found with developing responses is encouraging students to respond when they need to rather than when then have to or even worse, when they are forced to. This sense of authenticity is, in my view, is what is most lacking in the whole process. Personally, I have always annotated my texts as I read, this has only been enhanced through the use of technology, from making highlights and capturing quotes while reading eBooks to posting quotes and ideas via twitter and other such social media. One of the keys to this though is that it is ‘personal’ and has been my choice. No one told me to do it, instead I saw some greater good, some intrinsic motivation, to taking action in what I read. However, not everyone sees it this way, whether it is staff or student. 
 

Repositioning the Student

All this discussion of readers led me back to a book that got bandied around a few years back The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac.
 
Pennac mentions many things within his book, all of which strangely lead back to the reader and even more strangely lead away from a teacher centred process. I think that this is currently one of the big problems revolving around the way conferencing is currently being practised, the focus is too centred around the actions of the teacher-cum-facilitator and not around the student-cum-reader. I have therefore gotten to the point where something needs to happen to rebalance this equation. Some possible ideas of how to reposition this whole process include the gamification of the reading process through the implimentation the notion of badges in the classroom. In setting these achievements students would then be given some point of guidance through various competencies found within the reading continuum. However, as +Kevin Miklasz suggests: 
That structure behind your badge system is much more important than the simple fact that you use badges in your activities.
To point is that such a change would need to involve a complete rethink of the whole process and would be bound to fail if it were done in some sort of ad hoc fashion. Another plausible element of change is to make responses more authentic and meaningful by posting to a wider audience, not just for the teacher. Some possibilities include posting to social reading sites, such as Goodreads, or creating a blog to share with those in and out of the classroom. I have been particularly inspired by the work of Pernille Ripp and her blog Mrs. Ripp Reads. Although I am sure that she is not the only teacher out their using blogs to develop responses. What these things did teach me was that the first point of change in the whole process should probably be the teacher as leader learner, modelling what they preach, not preaching an empty practise.
 

In Conclusion: Is Reading Really Reading Without Responding?

I have come to the realisation that unless students are empowered and shown where the value exists for them, by teachers, and given more opportunities to develop authentic responses then the problem will continue to exist for teachers. The reality is, whether staff or students, we are all readers, therefore, in the end, we all need to find our way of responding. You may not want to write reviews online reviews or write extensive tracks in your margins, but the question needs to be asked: are you really reading if you are not responding?

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