Thursday, January 23, 2014

Waiting For Permission to be Awesome!

A Slow Start, and Then...

The first signs of success came this week in our Wildcat Internet Cafe' enrichment. Once we got past the issues we were having with device compatibility, students remembering passwords, and the constant revolving door of new students into our class, we were able to begin the creative process using technology tools to share knowledge.

Imagine a blank stare from a kid with a well-lit but equally blank screen from an iPad. I would never have believed these two images would exist in the same space. I have heard the term "digital natives" in referring to our students' generation -- students who grew up with access to technology from the womb. This may be pretty accurate in terms of access, but as we have found, the students in our little enrichment have up until recently lacked the spark to accept that learning can be in their own hands. In general, I have known students, well most students, come equipped with a keen sense of creativity. The first days of the enrichment brought a true reality check. Students struggled with the use of technology as a tool as opposed to more natural tasks such as texting and game playing.

The challenge of getting our students to create and share their knowledge was yet another roadblock that we needed to work through. It finally occurred to me after seeing the blank stares on the faces of our students -- in my own words but borrowed from a popular saying I have heard -- kids were waiting for permission to be awesome! Along with the challenge of using technology, our students appeared to be waiting for a teacher to feed them knowledge, for somebody to guide them through what was to be learned. Our students appeared to be in unfamiliar territory. Just like the technological roadblocks presented during the first days of this enrichment activity, we were able to sort through and find solutions. A big help in creating this newly found awesome was we allowed ourselves the freedom to be more flexible as to what content was covered, as students were basically in charge of  their own learning, the sky was the limit. This obviously would be a bit different given a content area classroom perhaps, but none-the-less students found themselves engaged in learning which was a beacon of hope going off, and it was bright! So far, there have been some very cool outcomes! Students have learned to utilize some technology tools, they have begun to create for a larger audience, and they are taking charge of their own learning.

A Few Ways We Were Able to Get Kids to Be Awesome

  1. First, students were taught about the importance of being good digital citizens. Restrictions over use of technology were put into perspective. Safe environments for kids to practice these skills were created; students were redirected when necessary and praised for their positive contributions. 
  2. Students were encouraged to ask themselves, "What do I want to learn?" 
  3. Students were introduced to a menu of tools they could use to convey their messages (blogs, video creation, infographic design tools, PowToon presentations, comic creations.) Students then worked together and taught each other how to use the tools.
  4. Lastly, as teachers, we spent very little time teaching. The kids were in charge of their own learning, causing engagement to go through the roof!

Monday, January 13, 2014

From Toys to Tools

Learning alongside kids.

A Peek at Our Challenge

The launch of a new enrichment activity at our school this week called Wildcat Internet Cafe' in simple terms was a self-imposed challenge that +Sean Williams and I have teamed up on.  Our goal is to try out a few things with our students, teaching them to utilize technology for learning.  Selfishly, I want to learn right along side them so I can know what all is involved when directing learning with the use of  technology. 
The take-aways from the week were few, but a powerful few. The first days of running a group of our students through the discovery of utilizing computerized devices as tools for learning was interesting to say the least. Our first meeting was quite comical in that our students usually get the choice of what they would like to do during the enrichment period. Of the 70 kids sitting in front of us, about 13 actually signed up.  I guess I did not do a great sell job on that one!  The reason we had so many kids was that I had no where else to put them and, well, I am glutton for punishment so I figured, "why not?" So we created a rock concert environment and tried to get them excited, with a little bit of success. The first day was a bit slow, but the second and third days were full of learning, and I have to say the level of engagement on their part was great!  We as a group had some successes and we certainly struggled a whole bunch. So, I thought I would share from our experiences.

Yep, they view those things as toys!

Our first discussion was, I believe, a sincere one and one that I needed to hear with my own ears. After having our students place the devices in front of them, most of which were their own, we discussed what wonderful things we would do with them instead of listen to my wonderful monologue.  At first they were sheepish in their response, but soon I could hardly hold back their unanimous outcry of "just let us play our games already!"  It was that moment that I realized the obstacle that lay in front of our school as a system -- although they are fluent in games and texting, they are not skilled in using these devices for learning.  I suppose there was a part of me that really wanted to hear them give an account of all the cool things that they had done the previous day to learn and share that learning with others...Nope! 

Not all devices were created equal.

Our school, well we are not device all! For this activity we worked to incorporate a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program with our kids. Sean and I worked on an activity to have students review policy on BYOD and to get parent approval.  We set up a Google form to have students get approval.  In hindsight, most kids had their smart phones out of which the majority bring to school on a daily basis, which we knew and it was great to see. My thought was if we were to roll out a BYOD program tomorrow, a large percentage of our students would be able to do this.  I worry about liability, which I guess it is part of my job, so the parent notification, although now seemed unnecessary for most, I think it was a great navigation task to kick us off. One of the things that we discovered quickly was that not all devices are great for working multiple step processes.  Screen sizes, different platforms used by the wide assortment of devices, and loading speeds were some of the technological challenges we sorted through in our first few days. We made due, but I discovered that if kids struggle a bunch with their devices doing simple tasks, their frustration shuts down their perseverance, especially if they are new to this game. So, not to endorse any product over another, I did take note of those types of devices that were working better than others in the tasks that we were working through. If needed, I can now have somewhat of an intelligent conversation about which devices would be good to invest money in when talking to a parent or advocating for our school.
    Wildcat Internet Cafe'

You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Although I use technology for myself to learn and be productive in my daily life, I am finding it a bit of a challenge learning how to use technology for learning in the classroom. I realized a while back that the "head in the sand" trick and avoiding the technology aspect of student learning wasn't doing anybody at my school any good. Typically you probably wouldn't see a principal of a school teaching a class at the end of the day. In fact, I had a couple of kids ask what I was doing and probably more wondering what I was thinking! Well, for me it is important to know first-hand the challenge that our students and teachers are up against.  I have learned and will continue to learn from the experiences of our kids and staff.  I cannot ask our teachers to implement strategies if I don't know the what, the how, or the why?  The importance of creating a professional learning network cannot be overemphasized in this case.  The connections that I have made thus far have really helped improve my understanding of many things, but most of all the fact that there are people out there willing to share their experiences and knowledge has helped me incorporate professional development everyday. It does take a willingness to jump in the pool, but having people willing to push you in the pool is even more important.  We will continue to learn through this experience. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Admitting You Have a Problem Is the First Step!

Well, here we go, I have just made the leap into this mysterious world of sharing through blogging, thanks to some encouragement from some recent twitter feeds and a blog I ran across, thank you +Dave Mulder for the push I needed.  I have for years felt as though I had nothing to share, and still wonder what use me sharing my thoughts and experiences will do to help others.  Regardless, if anything, I will be able to have a journal of my adventures, something to look back upon.

I am a principal by trade and am excited to learn new things.  In fact over the recent holiday break (almost two weeks now), I have done just that in trying to get ready for an enrichment club at our school that we will offer upon our students' return next week.  All this "learning" was sparked by a recent conversation that I had with my friend +Sean Williams, who serves as our local district technology consultant who posed the question to me in a curious sort of tone. "So, what are you all doing to get ready for the upcoming Smarter Balanced Assessment?" I know he meant well, but he caused me a lot of stress that day! Naturally, my initial response would have been a wonderful explanation of the work we have done over the course of the last couple of years in preparing our curriculum to meet the Common Core State Standards, of which I am very proud of our staff and district for their proactive approach.  The problem was, I know that was not what he really cared about and not what he was really asking.  I can imagine the look on my face.  I was stumped and probably a bit paralyzed. What he was more curious about was what our school was doing to ensure our kids have the skills to think their way through an assessment such as the SBAC requiring students to perform multiple-step tasks all the while interacting with a computerized device of whatever sort they may have access to and will be compatible.  Big Question!
I realize that a computer is a piece of equipment and just placing one in front of a student will not necessarily bear positive testing results.  The critical thinking that goes into an assessment like the Smarter Balanced and navigating a device to communicate learning is really what concerns me. Our staff is realizing that the Common Core is built for 21st century skills and this has created an urgency to adapt our teaching to allow students to operate at this level more than we have traditionally asked them to. We are still working through this, it has proven to be a long process.
Our current reality in terms of student practice using a device is outrageously insufficient. Our students do not have computer classes, let alone access to devices but for limited stints throughout their months they spend at our school this year, and the exposure will be limited for the most part of ensuring those papers that are due will be word processed. My paralysis, as to how we preparing our students technologically, came from envisioning our current students sitting down for the first time to take an assessment lacking the technical skills to demonstrate their knowledge toward meeting standards, ultimately becoming frustrated to the point of tears.
We have been able to get by with the current point and click format, but this will no longer be the only actions our students will be asked to perform.  Now, just to be clear this blog post is not about the test, but about a realization that as a school we need to get our students up to speed using technology as a tool for learning, furthering engagement and ability to critically think. This means our kids need exposure to navigating tools to help them learn and process information.  I probably wouldn't be the first to tell you that this is not happening at our school and I am sure we are not alone.
So, the creation of Area 42 was born from my new experiences of being a connected learner and a way to start sharing challenges and hopefully some solutions through the experiences at our school. Through the enrichment club, I will be learning with our students. The use of technology as a tool for learning is new for me as well, and thus I promised to forgive myself when I screw up because I am sure that I will...a bunch! My goals for this coming year will be to:
  • Get students to recognize the devices in front of them are more than toys and can be powerful tools for learning, but I am hoping for more.  
  • Use my experiences as a testing bed for staff development that is much needed for our teachers when it comes to using technology to enhance learning.
  • Not sure, but hoping for increased student engagement as they take charge of their own learning (sarcasm intended)!
So as we move forward my hope for Area 42 will be both learning for myself and hopefully learning from others. Feel free to help!

I will keep you posted, wish me luck!