In a recent post responding to the act of giving so prevalent in this festive season, +Aubrey Daniels International suggested that maybe it is not such a good idea to buy the boss a holiday gift. In the same vein as David Letterman, Daniels provides ten reasons to support his argument:
10. If you do it because others do it, you are doing it for the wrong reason and you will probably resent it
9. If the boss expects it, s/he is a bad boss to begin with and a gift may act as a positive reinforcer for bad boss behavior
8. If a gift affects the boss’ behaviour toward you, it is not a healthy work situation for you or the boss
7. It puts pressure on the boss to reciprocate and it is not a good idea to put pressure on the boss
6. It gets expensive for the boss if there are a number of direct or indirect reports who need reciprocating
5. It is the economy, stupid
4. It may cause the boss to question your motive
3. It is a good time to break this bad habit
2. A card with a hand written note is probably more meaningful – and it is a better, more appropriate habit
1. The boss doesn’t need it – give it to someone who does
I had never really questioned the act of giving like this before. It really got my thinking, is it right or wrong to give gifts at the end of the year? Why do we do it? Is it simply because it is something that has always been done or is there something deeper? Is all giving the same? Let me digress for a minutes.
 
 
There are some people that you don’t want to be at the end of the year in a school, such as daily organiser, report coordinator and timetabler. Sadly I am all these. Most days are frenetic, going from one job to the next. Let alone responding to various problems that may arise. Therefore, it was a nice surprise when I walked back into my office the other day after running around the school following up with various issues with reports to find that my Kris Kringle (+Catherine Gatt) had put up a poster to liven up my day. In a job without much thanks, this was the spark that was needed to reinjuvinate me, to add a little spring in my step. 
 
A bit of background to the whole affair, how Kris Kringle works at my school is that staff are told who they have in late November, so for the last few weeks of the school term, when staff and students are getting a bit tense and tired, there are little tricks and treats to get staff through to the end of the school year when the actual Kris Kringle presents are given. During these weeks, staff are on the receiving end of anything from vouchers for free coffees to having everything on your pin-board turned upside-down. It all really depends on who you are and who you have. For me this year, I had a fellow teacher who loves horses, such I did things like make a word cloud with ways to say horse in a range of different languages, as well as print out some My Little Pony colouring sheets and attach them to some chocolates. My hope was to find something creative and unique that would make my KK laugh and bring a smile to their day, that would say to them, “my KK really knows me”.
 
 
 
Many of the issues that Daniels associates with giving are related to doing it for the wrong reasons and simply following on from other people’s traditions. What things like Kris Kringle allow us to celebrate is a joy of the small things that often have no place in the hustle bustle of day to day life. Whether it be a short note, a joke, a chocolate or two – it is about the act of giving that makes you feel that you are more than just another number, another teacher code, you are important. At its heart, it is about fostering positive relationships and developing a sense of community amongst staff. The biggest challenge is how do we foster these things throughout the year not just during the festive times?
 
So if our intentions for giving fall outside of the personal, beyond a sense of community and relationships, simply because of power and authority, then maybe the act of giving needs to be questioned. What are some of the ways that you give to shown that you care and to help people feel that they belong?

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There has been a lot shared lately as a part of Connected Educator Month about the benefits of connecting online. In many respects, I agree with +George Couros that ‘isolation is now a choice educators make‘. However, something overlooked in many of the discussions and debates are some of the taboos associated with being a connected educator. Some of the reasons why teachers do make the choice to stay isolated.
 

Teacher-Student-Friend?

In a recent post, Peter Dewitt spoke about how he saw a photo come up in his feeds from an ex-student, whom he had taught in Year 1. She was photographed finishing her last teaching round. It got me thinking, when is it ok to connect with students (and ex-students) online? Another similar example that comes to mind is from +Adam Bellow‘s inspiring keynote from ISTE2013 where he invited people to ‘change the world’. A part of this is utilising the power of social media to connect with students through such mediums as Facebook. In addition to this, +Anne Mirtschin‘s many posts and presentations on connecting online seem to be littered with incidental connections with students in and out of school in a whole range of spaces. Now I am not saying that any of these situations are wrong, but it begs the question, when do we cross the line, when does our relationship with students go from being a professional one to being personal?
 
A few years ago, a friend of mine who works at a different school told me about how his principal directed teachers to remove all ex-students from their social media accounts. He spoke about the threat of images and ideas being spread, the spectre of being sued for negligence and a litany other things. Now I am not sure if the principal in question was mandated by their region to tell the staff this, but what confuses me about such situations is that little attention was given to what teachers actually publish online in the first place. I know some teachers who won’t even connect with other teachers online, let alone ex-students, in the fear of being caught out and incriminated, while there are others who won’t connect with anyone and simply leave social media altogether. I have written about the culture of fear elsewhere. To me, this makes me wonder what are they afraid of? For some, it is a fear of their lifestyle choices outside of teaching crossing over into their professional life. Others, it is a political decision, a refusal to share personal information and ideas with online corporations. Sadly, what is not brought up enough during such discussions amongst staff is what is published online, rather than who we are publishing too.
 

Connecting in the Classroom

Attached to his website, +stephen heppell and his wife, have provided a different take on the social media phenomena. Instead of running from it, the Heppell’s propose that we run to it in a safe and constructive manner. Correspondingly, they have developed a list of some do’s and don’ts associated with using social media safely in the classroom. 
 
Some of their do’s include:
  • Developing a personal and professional presence online 
  • Let students ‘friend’ you, not vice versa 
  • Build groups for your classes and share information and resources 
  • Post positive information 
Some of the don’ts include: 
  • Don’t FB chat 
  • Social networks in school are not places for criticisms or whingeing. 
  • Don’t look at, let alone comment on, pupils’ pictures 
Now in some respect, I think that sites such as Facebook and Google+ have actually come a long way since 2010 when the Heppell’s space was last updated. For example, you are now able to ‘post’ and ‘share’ with different groups and circles, you are therefore supposedly able to maintain different connections within the one ‘presence’ (although I wouldn’t want to post the wrong information to the wrong group, may be a bit awkward.) However, many of the original tenets remain pertinent today. Whatever medium you are communicating in, it is always important to have boundaries. 
 
I think that this is sometimes why some staff have issues with students sending emails to their school email account. For them, this crosses their private and personal boundary. They just don’t expect to have students sending through questions, while they are checking their work email. Whether it is using a school’s student emailing system to engage with students or setting up spaces like Edmodo, the most important thing is to set up boundaries. The problem is though that such boundaries are often left unset or worse, they are set by the habits of other teachers whose classroom culture creates a different set of expectations.
 
A simple example of where a clear set of boundaries has been set up comes from +Richard Lambert. In his school two different email accounts have been created to differentiate between staff to staff communications and student related communications. The school’s Google Apps for Education account email that staff and students get is used to facilitate collaboration and connections between staff and students, while staff’s edumail accounts are left for professional correspondences.
 
Sometimes though there is something even more than boundaries, sometimes the question is what we choose to publish in the first place.
 

Duty of Care … To Ourselves

 
 
Just as there is some confusion at times where duty of care and professional responsibility starts and stops, so too is there a dangerous blurring between our private and professional relations when it comes to our online identify. Often, through social sites such as Google+ and Facebook, we connect with people in the community that we work in. Whether it be someone met at the gym or a team mate at a local sporting club, these online associations often compromise who we are and raise questions about our actions. The big challenge is that we are all many things to many people. For some, this is just too much to handle.
 
I have been privy to many a holiday briefing where staff are warned about how they ‘act’ in public over the break. This fear can lead to some staff almost refusing to go out in the community in which they work in, instead going to great lengths to create a divide between their professional and private worlds. Sometimes though, you can never escape past students or parents in the community. I remember a fellow staff member sharing a story about how she bumped into an ex-student at three in the morning a long way from home.
 
I think that this dilemma of trying to create a divide between our private and public worlds relates to our online identity as well. No matter how far you run, how many walls you hide behind, you still leave a trace whether we like it or not. Often we provide information to corporations whose goal is to make money, they often slip with keeping information and accounts private. Facebook, for example, has a long history of ‘accidentally’ changing users privacy settings, switching them from private to public.
 
Although I clearly don’t agree with what Facebook does, my bigger concern is what we put up online in the first place. The big question, in my view, is that we continue to think that we can really have a public and private divide completely separated from each other? We speak to students about the issues associated with digital citizenship, when in fact many of us fail to heed the warnings ourselves.

In an insightful article, ‘On Best Behaviour: Three Golden Rules for Ethical Cyber Citizenship‘, +David Tuffley suggests that:

Eventually, but not soon enough for some, society evolves rules of acceptable use that become established as standard behaviour.

As various sources of technology becomes a part of our everyday lives, we need to consider what these ‘rules’ should be. Addressing our universal actions online, Tuffley appropriates Kant’s notion of ‘categorical imperatives’. He outlines three suggested guiding principles for the ethical use of technology:
  1. Before I do something with this technology, I ask myself, would it be alright if everyone did it?
  2. Is this going to harm or dehumanise anyone, even people I don’t know and will never meet?
  3. Do I have the informed consent of those who will be affected?
Whether Tuffley is right or wrong, I think that it highlights one important factor, that we need to better self-monitor ourselves when it comes to technology. For in the end, our first duty of care should be to ourselves, for if we cannot maintain our own public identity, what hope do students have?
 

Conclusion

Now I am not saying that all the points and ideas that I have discussed here are right, such as connecting in the classroom, but they do deserve to be given due diligence. If teachers are to become more connected, then these are some of the things that need to be discussed. Instead of young potential leaders going offline in the fear that their digital footprint may hinder their climb or locking themselves within their gated communities, we need to discuss these issues in a more meaningful manner. The question that we always need to be mindful of through all of these discussions is what are the consequences of our choices and, in particular, what possibilities are being missed if we make the decision to stay isolated, rather than being connected.

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Tom Whitby stated in a recent blog post addressing Connected Educator Month that: “Being connected is not an add-on or a luxury for educators: it has become a necessity”. I could not agree more, there are so many benefits to being connected with the wider world that were not possible in the past. The question that constantly comes up though is why are there not more people connecting? Why are there not more people sharing their ideas with the wider world?
In a previous blog I wrote about what I perceive as being some of the benefits of blogging. However, what is often missed in these discussions is why more teachers do not jump on board. Some reasons that come to mind are that teachers do not see any direct benefit for them and their teaching. They do not really use the internet ‘like that’. They connect enough with the people that really matter and they are the teachers in their team. The biggest difficulty though, in my view, is finding the time to grow and cultivate all my ideas into legible arguments, something that they feel confident to publish.
 
In a piece about writing, Bill Ferriter suggests dedicating set times for writing. This is a strategy that I have heard before, but I think that it only elevates a part of the issue. Many teachers that I know already feel challenged in finding the ideal work/life balance and believe that writing a regular blog just isn’t a priority. In response to the dilemma of time, in a recent episode of the Edtech Crew, interviewee, Ian Guest, stated that “a blog in the first place is for yourself, it has to be”. His reasoning is that it is only then that you will find the extra time needed to commit to your task. I myself could not agree more and am always scraping a few minutes here and there to get my posts out there. My concern with this though is whether or not it is acceptable in today’s day and age that teachers are not connecting and being involved? Is it acceptable to just allow teachers who do not want to connect to simply stay offline? For as +Tom Whitby argues, “We must have digitally literate educators, if we want digitally literate students.” How then do we do this without going down the road of forcing teachers to keep learning blogs that they do not really care about? How do we provide a situation where teachers are not committed to writing regular blog posts. My answer is simple, why not start a school blogging space?
Most schools these days seem to have their own Facebook site and Twitter handle, why not extend this and have a central blogging space as well? A place where everyone has the ability to write a post. One of the challenges with blogging is that you don’t want to publish once every month, ideally you want a steady stream of information coming in. Also, it can reflect badly on you. (‘Gee so and so hasn’t been doing much …’) In sharing the load, this daunting prospect of keeping up is alleviated. Instead of considering the space as having ‘one’ authorial voice, a school space would become a place to collect together a wide range of ideas, voices and perspectives. An example of such an approach is the Smartblogs website where a wide range of people submit different content, often specific to their area of expertise.
 
In addition to relieving the stress of time, by writing a blog as a school, everyone is able to come on board. Too often the big ‘sell’ is left to the principal, with different school-based achievements celebrated through their blogging space. I wonder whether it wouldn’t be more powerful if everyone was a part of this process, even students. The reality is, can a principal know about the finer details of every single achievement that may have happened in the school and more importantly, should they? Isn’t it more empowering if those people who actually facilitate events and may have organised then then actually share their achievement. This is often what happens with the school newsletter, why can it not happen with the school blog? Everyone talks about the power of ‘student voice’, but what about the power of the ‘learners voice’ – this includes teachers and students alike, as well as teaching and non-teaching staff. Such a blogging space would therefore offer a place where everyone’s ideas and achievements can be recognised in a way that does not put pressure on one solitary voice.
 
 
 
In addition to sharing (isn’t that enough), by creating a school blogging space staff would be getting a hands on experience of many conundrums facing us today, such as tagging post do that they are able to be searched easily and publishing for an often unknown audience. Working in a collaborative manner where the school is involved would hopefully create an environment that breaks down some of the fear with taking on the unknown, a space where staff can learn and learn together.
 
This idea is still in its infancy. I would love anyone feedback as to whether this is done at your school or what people see as being an issue.

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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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In a recent blog post on being a connected educator, Tom Whitby suggested that:
The unconnected educator is more in line with the 20th century model of teacher. Access to the Internet is limited for whatever reason. Relevance in the 21st century is not a concern. Whatever they need to know, someone will tell them. If they email anyone, they will follow it up with a phone call to make sure it was received.
The question that it got me thinking was that if not being connected means not being a part of the 21st century, what does it actually mean to be working within the 21st century? There are many contrary opinions out there about what 21st century learning is and what are the skills associated with it. However, the one thing that stands out across all discussions is that to ignore one element often collapses the whole definition.

 

Reading, a Sum of Many Interconnected Parts

The other day, I was discussing the practise of reading with a fellow teacher. Although seemingly obvious now, it occurred to me that although there are various strategies and focuses (inferring, summarising, questioning etc …), they are all interrelated and interconnected and cannot really be taught in isolation. Take inferring for example. Students are asked to refer to background knowledge or text structures in order to develop inferences from the text, even if they are not necessarily the focus (see Harvey & Goudvis Strategies That Work). The reality is to talk about any strategy or skill-in-itself often misses or denies something else that is happening during the process of reading, pushing the other activities into the margins. Reading is subsequently often taught in an isolated fashion, with ‘focuses’ and so forth, based on the effort to structure or organise practices. In this situation, I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ S/Z where he unpacked the different layers of meaning inherent in Balzac’s novella, ‘Sarrasine’. Barthes approach was to be open to the meaning within the text, rather than restrict himself with a predefined focus. This seems in vast contrast to the practise of reading with a ‘focus’ in mind. The question this poses then is whether focusing one particular strategy really constitutes reading? (I have also written about this elsewhere). To me it is comparable to a running through a training drill as opposed to playing a game. Clearly they are related, but are they really the same? 

 

21st Century Learning, A Whole or Many Parts?

In an effort to organise the different skills associated with the 21st century learning, the researchers at ATC21S divided them into four different categories:
Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
Ways of working. Communication and collaboration
Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
Often this division into separate categories leads to people responding to the different parts in isolation. However, when you start to look at the list, you begin to realise that each of the different categories are inseparably interlinked. For example, it is through the use of Blogger that I am able to critically engage with ideas and communicate them with others. The question that needs to be considered then is whether the different categories can really be dealt with in isolation? Are they things-in-themselves or just a way of thinking about the bigger question of learning in the 21st century?

I think that this point is particularly comes to the fore when you consider the use of ICT tools. It is often believed that teaching the tool somehow automatically  equals  utilising 21st century skills. However, in my opinion, this is a bit of a misnomer. Too often the focus of professional development revolves around the use of a particular tool, as that is where the money has been spent, rather than focusing on the skills that are made possible and the changes that this might bring to learning.

Take for example the failure of interactive whiteboards. I was once privy to an inspiring presentation run by +Peter Kent for Promethean. His main point was that the interactive whiteboard offered an opportunity to modify the way we teach and the way students learn. Take this possible sequence of events as a model: after brainstorming ideas, students are invited to come up to the board and engage with the content by reorganising the information, these choices are then used to develop a further conversations, such as ‘why did you make that choice’. This series of events shows the possibility of the interactive whiteboard to not only decentralise the classroom (at least remove the teacher from the stage), but also the ability to engage students in the critical question of ‘why’ they made the decision that they did. Sadly, from my experience, the use of IWB’s has never really gotten past using the boards as an overpriced projector, a part from those few cavaliers trying to lead the way. I feel that there are two things that have inhibited the take up of IWB’s by teachers. Firstly, many staff struggle to utilise the associated software to its full potential (this is often the biggest hurdle), but more importantly, there is often an inability to link the use of IWB’s with the skills of thinking and collaboration. Is it any wonder then why they have never really taken? (I am of the belief that many of the benefits of interactive whiteboards are slowly being undermined by the rolling out of 1 to 1 devices, see Rich Lambert’s blog on the matter.)
 

Thinking in the 21st Century

Once again we come back to the question, does focusing on one particular category really constitute 21st century learning? Does the fact that you are focusing on thinking-in-itself simply equate to focusing on the skills of 21st century learning, rather it means you are focusing on thinking. Would you consider teaching students how to infer as covering all the different skills associated with reading,? Clearly not, it is simply teaching students how to infer. Why then does the same not apply to the different skills associated with the 21st century? When introducing 21st century, it is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities. There are sometimes in life when the sum of the parts are just different to the whole.

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