Monday, November 24, 2014

edJEWcon Cleveland: After-Thoughts

Last Sunday, edJEWcon hit the road to "Learn, Reflect, Share" at the Gross Schechter Day School in snowy Cleveland.

A lot of learning took place, as well as some mostly "local" sharing via Twitter (hashtag #edjewcon), Today's Meet and a shared Google doc during Silvia Tolisano's brilliant keynote, The 5 C's in Jewish Education.

The day was great. We had hoped for a larger crowd, but the 10-4 timeline on a (snowy) Sunday may have deterred people. We also need to work more on branding. It seems clear that there is a lack of understanding. What IS edJEWcon? Is it a technology conference? (No!)
I did put together a trailer to try to explain, in general, what edJEWcon is about.

edJEWcon from edJEWcon on Vimeo.

Afterwards, we had what I thought was an excellent selection of "breakout sessions" with some really great educators sharing their ideas. For my session, I wanted to lead a conversation called "Learning is Messy." I blogged recently about some of my thoughts and feelings about all of the boxes in education, and it is something I've really been struggling with in my own teaching practice. My goal, as it always is, was to have the session be very interactive. I structured it using the "What? So what? Now what?" protocol.

It felt like a successful session but not a conversation. One thing I really love about going to share my work at other schools or conferences is the perspective it affords me. In my day-to-day reality, I am motivated to work hard by an awareness of how much better I can be, how much more there is to learn and do. It is like climbing a huge mountain without stopping, only focused on how far there still is left to climb.
Sharing my work elsewhere is akin to taking the time to stop and review how much I've already done, to look back and appreciate that I've actually come a long way. It's something I never take time to do unless I find myself sharing the process with others who are interested.

It felt gratifying to share our student blogfolios and student-led conferences with the teachers in Cleveland. They were impressed by our students' capacity for reflective self-evaluation, as well as the evidence of digital literacy (hyperlinked persuasive blog posts; Creative Commons images, properly cited) they saw on the student blogs.

I am left with these questions, needing more thought and discussion:
Why is it so challenging to get the whole learn-reflect-share cycle happening? Is it worth the effort? How can we create a structure that supports the entire process?

How do we continue to grow these experiences for maximum impact on the learning culture at our schools? How do we build and sustain a network that exists beyond the in-person experience?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Personalized Learning: Will American Schools Ever Get There?

Personalized learning is a hot topic in education right now, emerging as one of the "new forms" of the modern era.
How could learning NOT get more personalized, what with all of the apps, devices, search engines, maker spaces, genius hours, contests, global projects and authentic opportunities for learning, prevalent in the modern world?

Yet the old forms stick like glue, holding us back from exploring ideas of what education could and should look like. Structures like grades, schedules, age-groupings, testing, even school itself must be critically examined. Do they still make sense?

It may be cliche, but the saying "out of the box" really speaks to me. I feel that the old forms gained popularity and still hang on because they represent the alluring idea that education can be boxed, measured, and standardized. [We thought the same thing could be done with nutrition, and look at what we are learning about the unhealthfulness of factory foods.]
Why do we love boxes?

Chris Lehman says that students should never be the implied object of their own education. Do you teach subject content or do you teach kids? Kids are not standardized. We need to stop pretending and start speaking truth.
TruthMy students, despite being born in a roughly 365-day span, have vastly different abilities, needs, interests and motivations. They come to me at varying stages of physical, emotional and academic development. This impacts what they are able to do in my language arts classroom. 

You wouldn't know it by looking at most schools, but acknowledging and accepting this is the easy part. Once we accept that learning is developmental and students have different needs, what are we going to do about it?

How do we get from point A (think rows of desks, worksheets. teacher-centered, everyone doing the same thing, compliance, grades, etc.) to these "new forms" that so many of us are envisioning and working to create? How does personalized learning work within the old-school constructs within which most of us are forced to work?

The key is embracing and creating environments where open-ended, unboxed constructs provide students opportunity for "choice and voice as opposed to chore and bore, documenting growth (which we do at my school through student blogfolios), formative assessment, and trying things to see what works for each child. The role of the teacher has totally changed to more individual coaching and conferencing.

Many people say that they want students to be able to learn according to their passions, personalities, abilities and interests, yet they are terrified to let go enough to allow this. Many of us, parents and educators alike, want it all. We want our students to be able to learn out of the box, but we want to keep the box, too. We are so afraid of what will happen without it. Will our children be prepared for college? How often do we stop and ask ourselves what it even means to be educated?

We can not have it both ways. We must decide where we stand and what we believe. If we believe  in a student-centered, personalized approach, we have to let go of some of the old ways of doing things. We have to understand that learning is developmental, that we learn through practice. We have to allow the roles of both teacher and students to evolve and change.

Learning is messy, messy, messy. Any attempt to make it un-messy squeezes kids into unnatural confines that work for some, but not all, students.