I need to step up my game, my students deserve it

I’ve felt for a while now that I need to improve my teaching. I think all reflective teachers feel this, and it’s a natural part of wanting to do your best and feel satisfied with your work, regardless of what it might be. But lately I’ve been recognizing specific things that I need to improve, and I haven’t taken steps to actually improve them. That’s not okay.

Coasting on my strengths

First of all, I feel that I am a good teacher. Perhaps even an exceptional teacher in some regards. So, this post is not self-denigrating. I think there is a big difference between a healthy recognition of what you can do to improve, and feeling negative about yourself. Reflecting on areas of weakness and ways to improve is essential to growth, it’s a vital part of self-awareness.

However, lately I feel that I’ve been glossing over some of my weaknesses by resting on my strengths. I am fortunate to have a natural rapport with my students – I “get” them and I really hear their ideas. I provide them with engaging, thought-provoking activities and ideas that, hopefully, they will remember for years to come. I connect them with peers and teachers globally, providing them with a wider audience for their thoughts and questions. So, for the most part, my students enjoy my classroom – I believe they feel comfortable, respected, recognized, and challenged.

But that’s not enough. They also need a teacher who is highly prepared, organized and implementing proven strategies for optimal learning – every single day, every lesson. Unlike my rapport and connection with my students, preparation and organization are areas that don’t come naturally to me.

My students deserve my best, nothing less

My goal is to continue to provide my students with memorable learning experiences, but at the same time do everything I can to provide them with proven instructional strategies that will prepare them for next week, next year, and yes, prepare them for “the test.”

Whether I like it or not, my students are participants in the education game. I will do what I can to agitate against standardized testing and advocate for learning that is based on engagement, relevance, individual student strengths, and demonstrating learning in a variety of ways. But, the reality is that my students will have to take standardized tests, do at least an hour of homework next year, and probably sit through many lessons that they may not be intrinsically motivated by.

They are “students” as well as individuals

So, while I continue to build relationships with them that are based on meeting each of them as the beautiful individuals they are, I also need to remember that they are “students,” and I need to prepare them for that role. And that’s not a negative thing. As “students” they will have certain expectations in the school years ahead of them. It’s my job to be sure they are ready for those expectations. I want my students to feel successful and capable, not just in my classroom, but in all of their learning.

So, I need to be sure that my lessons are not only engaging and (hopefully) memorable, but are also based on sound pedagogy. For me, that means re-evaluating my instructional planning, clarifying the learning expectations for my students, and providing timely feedback (among other things!) Therefore, I’m revisiting Marzano’s work and re-reading articles and strategies that lay the foundation for effective instruction.

It’s not enough for me to get by on my rapport with students, they also need the best instruction that I can give. As Justin Tarte said in one of his recent, excellent posts (10 things your students need from you this year), “Your students need you to be your best every single day. There are some careers that allow for ‘bad days’ and allow you to fly under the radar so to speak… Education is not that career. Your kids need your ‘A’ game every single day.”

A teacher evaluation that matters – feedback from a student

Every holiday season I get a handful of gifts from some of my students and/or their parents. While these gifts are certainly nothing that I expect or even feel I deserve (initially I had mixed feelings about these holiday gifts), I have come to greatly appreciate the thoughtfulness and acts of gratitude from my students and their families.

This year, amidst the coffee shop gift cards, chocolates, and homemade cookies I also received a beautiful, personal card from one of my students. This wasn’t the only handwritten card I got, but the sentiments in it really struck me.

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The message in the card (which covered the entire inside and then went onto the back) made me realize that some of the ideas, outside of the curriculum, that I try to convey are getting across. Here are a few excerpts from the card:

Thank you for showing me that good grades aren’t everything and that I don’t have to be perfect, I used to struggle with that a lot, and gradually, it’s getting better!

Thank you for giving me room to learn, so I’m not always with a teacher who will tell me exactly how to do it. But, also thank you for being there when I do need your help.

Thank you for letting us interact physically to learn, instead of just listening.

Thank you for not giving us Dojo points,* so we’ll be ready for life. I really appreciate that!

Thank you for giving me a reason to learn, instead of just for my family, but for me and my benefit!

The card, and its message of gratitude, was easily the best gift I received this holiday season.

(*The mention of Dojo points refers to a computer-based behavior management system called Class Dojo that I refuse to use. It is essentially a “techified” version of a sticker chart, that is based on publicly rewarding “good” behavior. Here is an excellent post that discusses sticker chart reward systems, and here is another that takes a very critical view of Class Dojo in particular.)

Remembering what it feels like to be “a student”

The other day I was talking with some colleagues about the challenges of integrating technology into instruction. They were voicing concerns about how hard it is to keep up to date with the constantly changing nature of technology, and the endless stream of new applications. Based on past conversations, they know my opinion that technology integration is no longer optional, and they know that I believe teachers can learn independently of structured professional development. So, one of them stated, “I know I can learn it on my own by exploring and connecting with others, but that takes time. When do we have time to do that, with all of the other stuff we have to do?”

I completely agreed, and I didn’t push the topic.

Learning about, and integrating, technology does take time, and as teachers we are frequently asked to do more than we reasonably can. (In fact, I think all teachers know they can’t do everything they are asked to do. And so we privately, perhaps subconsciously, make decisions about what we are going to put on the bottom of our priority list, or what we are simply going to leave off the list. But that’s a blog post for another time.)

Afterwards, however, I realized that my colleagues who had complained about not having the time to explore educational technology also assign homework to their students at least four nights a week. They assign it regardless of how much homework the students are getting from other teachers. Regardless of whether the students have after school activities like sports or music lessons or art clubs. Regardless of whether they have chores or household responsibilities. And regardless of the fact that they may simply have hobbies and interests of their own that they would like to explore.

My hunch is that these teachers often hear the complaint from students that they don’t have time to do the homework. Yet that complaint is seldom accepted. They are expected to do the homework, it’s their responsibility. It will help them learn to manage their time and their priorities (or so the theory goes).

Why is it okay for teachers to opt out of something that they don’t have time for (or, more likely, what they don’t find intrinsically interesting), but it’s not okay for students to do the same?

However, issues about homework or technology isn’t really the point. Remembering what it feels like to be a student is the point. As professionals in the service industry of learning, teachers need to understand what being a learner, or “a student”, feels like.

Below is a short video featuring Jay McTighe discussing the importance of educators continuing to put themselves in situations where they have to learn new and challenging concepts.

I think it is crucial that teachers constantly try to see things from their students’ point of view; would they have time for the homework? How do they learn best? What professional development workshops drive them crazy? Which ones do they love? What motivates them in terms of learning? How do they respond to learning challenging, new skills? Would they want to be a student in their own class?

Thinking about these questions helps me reflect on and refine my teaching, something I know I’ll have to constantly do.

Learning from a cowboy

The other night I finished watching a documentary that I was rather skeptical of when I first saw it recommended in my Netflix account. I watch a lot of documentaries, but I don’t watch many westerns, so I was a bit doubtful when “Buck” showed up in my recommended videos. It didn’t help matters when I saw that it was about the character that “The Horse Whisperer” was based on (which I assume, closed-mindedly, is just melodramatic Hollywood fluff. I haven’t actually ever seen it. Perhaps it’s very good…) But “Buck” kept popping up, and it had some very positive reviews, so I gave it a try.

It’s good.

But this won’t be a movie review. I’m writing this because throughout the film I kept making connections to education and learning. I’m not going to get too into the film and how I felt it connected to effective, responsible teaching. Instead, I suggest that you watch it.

But, I will include a few quotes from the subject of the documentary, Buck Brannaman, and the areas of education that I think they touch on.

On the benefits of failure:

If you allow the horse to make mistakes, the horse will learn from mistakes, no different from a human. But you can’t get him to dread making mistakes for fear of what’s gonna happen after he does.

On Classroom management:

Bribery doesn’t work with horses. No different than trying to bribe a kid. All it does is make a contemptuous, spoiled horse. But, you don’t want him afraid of you either. You can be strict, and set the expectations, but you don’t need to be unfair. 

On Project Based learning:

Today, you’re gonna find out what it’s like to actually use a horse, and how nice they can be when they get used. I want you to be able to learn things and do things in real life, just like if you were on a ranch where you had a job to do.

On Passion Based learning:

I took right to it [compassionate horse handling] as soon as I saw it. I thought, “I don’t even know what this is. But whatever it is, I need this.”

If you got a taste of what I’m talking about, you couldn’t get enough of it. You’d rather do that than eat. You may spend your whole life chasing that [feeling]. That’s possible. But it’s a good thing to chase.

On perseverance and courage:

An average person can be extraordinary at this. But if you don’t have guts, if you don’t have any try, you’ll be damn lucky to be ordinary.

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Here’s the trailer to the film, which I don’t think really does it justice. It’s not the greatest documentary ever made, but it’s very good. And it’s not just about horses and horse-handling, it’s about life. Which means it’s about learning.

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Modelling “authentic” writing

Last Wednesday, I received a letter at school informing me that my grant proposal to use MinecraftEdu in class had been approved and was being fully funded. I immediately and excitedly shared this news with my students. Many of the students cheered, stood up and even waved their hands above their heads.  (Some of them, of course, rolled their eyes and asked, “Does that mean we have to play Minecraft?”) But this post isn’t about Minecraft, or gaming and whether or not it’s beneficial to instruction. (Because honestly, I have no idea, but I’m excited to give it a try.) This post is about writing.

I shared the news about the grant with my students because I was excited, but also because I had told them I was applying for it and we had talked about the process of convincing my district that using Minecraft in class would be a good idea. 

I also have a set of five iPads in my classroom, the only classroom in the school that has iPads. Students always ask me why we have so many iPads, and I’m proud to tell them that I got them through writing a grant. They are astonished. “You got five iPads just through writing?” “Well, yes.” I reply. “But I had to write very convincingly.”

In the past year I have realized that the writing I actually do, in real life, is what I should be sharing with my students. I used to make up writing just to model a certain skill in class. Now I find examples from people that actually apply that skill in their everyday life. Personally, I don’t go home and write narrative stories with elaborative details in my free time, so I don’t want to pretend to my students that I do. But there are a lot of people, professional writers and hobby writers, that do. It seems more honest to share those examples of authentic writing with my students.

I do, however, share a lot of the everyday writing that I do. Sharing my grant applications with them gave us a perfect launching point for discussing persuasive writing. Some are now hard at work writing convincing arguments for why they should be allowed to chew gum in class. Others are writing proposals to get a class pet, and others are working on persuading me that they should be able to take their shoes off in class.

I also share this blog with my students. We don’t actually read too much of it, because they are not the intended audience, and it would be boring to them. (They were quite interested in my post about homework however.) This alone gives us a chance to talk about audience and purpose for writing. Some students couldn’t understand why I would write a blog post a week if it wasn’t an assignment. So, we talked about how it is a way for me to process my ideas and reflect on my teaching. I told them that writing things down was one of the best ways for me to process my thoughts.

I also show the students my Evernote account. I talk about how it is a place for me to write just for me. So, it’s sloppy, it’s loose, there isn’t as much regard for punctuation. I show them my notes of “to-do” items (both short and long-term), the notes that I record when an idea hits me in the middle of a workout, the notes that I jot down about podcasts I’m listening to, or the notes from the book I’m reading.

It’s important to me that my students know why they are learning a skill. (This is different from posting a learning objective telling them what they’re going to learn and how they’re going to learn it). So, when I ask them to write it’s only fair that I give them good reasons for why they might need to write. Showing them prefabricated examples of writing that is done just for writing instruction doesn’t really do it. I need to show them why I write, why other people write, and the benefits of daily writing. I need to show them authentic writing.

Do writing teachers have to write? I don’t know, but it certainly has helped me and my writing instruction. For, just as teachers benefit from experiencing the frustrations and challenges of learning new things like technology, it’s also helpful to experience the highs and lows of writing. What it feels like to have writer’s block, what it feels like when you don’t think you have an audience, what it feels like when you’re excited about a good sentence. That way we can relate to what our students go through in their own writing process.

Student blogs and student voice

Wednesday night has become my favorite night of the week.

Yes, better than Friday night or Saturday night. Because Wednesday night is when my Inbox fills up with the latest batch of blog posts from my 5th grade students.

Giving all of my students their own blog this year has been incredible. I require that my students post at least once a week, due on Thursday so we can edit and post them by Friday. (Though many students post 2 or 3 entries each week.) So, on Wednesday night I know I get to sit down and read through a beautiful array of ideas, words, and personalities. It is the highlight of my week, work or otherwise.

I have tried to emphasize that these are their blogs, and they can therefore write about whatever they would like. And they do. I read posts about serious topics – like girls’ education rights, volunteering at a local children’s hospital, and Ramadan. These are submitted alongside lighthearted posts about what to do if you are bored, reviews of YouTube skits, and rants against holiday shopping.

And each post not only has a unique topic, but a unique student voice as well. Some are flowing and eloquent, probing for understanding about topics like human meanness and inequality. Others are short and direct, stating bluntly why Minecraft is “awesome!!!”, using the bare minimum of necessary vocabulary.

This is what I love about the blogs, but also what I sometimes struggle with. I want my students to feel that this is their space to express their ideas and their personality. But I also feel the urge to make them edit for correct punctuation or expand on their ideas by adding elaboration and details. It’s sometimes hard to know when to let their real, eleven year-old voice be on full display, and when to help them polish and refine that voice. I love the individuality and quirkiness of their writing, warts and all, but is that what we should be displaying for the world to see?

Student Blogs

What is authentic “student voice”?

Will they develop poor writing habits if I don’t have them fix every “mistake”? Will their parents be embarrassed if there are glaring punctuation errors in their posts? And, on the other side, will the students lose their excitement and sense of ownership if the blogs become an exercise in revision and editing? Will it still be their voice if I have them reword and elaborate ideas that make perfect sense to them and their peers? If I hold them accountable for correct spelling, punctuation, and detailed elaboration on more formal writing assignments, do I need to do the same on their blogs?

A few recent posts by educators I greatly admire have gotten me thinking about this more than usual lately.

Let’s advocate for student voice, but not fake ones. Our students do have a voice. Most of them are childlike, full of childlike ideas and most aren’t as eloquent as adults because they aren’t adults. –Dean Shareski

Dean Shareski has an excellent post, Fake and Real Student Voice, that brings up interesting precautions about using “student voice” to further adult agendas. He especially highlights how the current viral video for the toy GoldieBlox is a misrepresentation of “child voice.” Gary Stager expands on these ideas in his post Voice is Cheap.

I’m not concerned that my students’ blogs are being manipulated by me (or other adults) for a larger agenda. But I do wonder if it isn’t still a slight misrepresentation if their posts have gone through several revisions before being published. I can say I have them polish their posts for the sake of helping them become better writers but, to be honest, I’m also considering how their posts reflect on me as their teacher. If there are mistakes present, will my administrators, peers, or parents question my instruction?

These are just a few of the things I’ve been thinking about the last few weeks as I read my students’ amazing, imperfect, honest writings.

I’d love to hear what others think; should student blog posts feature polished, revised writing, or is it more beneficial to let them blog in their own words, with their own idiosyncrasies and “mistakes”?

Either way, I can’t wait for Wednesday night, for the next batch of beautiful ideas and words to fill up my Inbox.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – meeting students with compassion

My 5th grade class has been focusing on analyzing theme in narrative writing. Our working definition of theme is, “A message (or lesson or moral) that the book is trying to communicate. The theme is a big message that could be applied to life in general, not just to the characters in the book.” Every week we add to our list of possible themes as new ideas are discussed.

Last week I was talking with a student who was reading Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. She was having trouble identifying a theme, so I asked her to tell me what was going on in the book. As we talked, she explained that it was hard to find a theme because all of the characters were dealing with sadness and problems, and the problems were getting worse instead of getting better. I asked her if the characters talked about their problems with each other. After a short discussion we came up with the idea that the theme might be, “everyone has some kind of sadness, and knowing that can help you understand other people.” She then connected that idea to the title of the book, explaining that it came from the saying, “Don’t judge a person until you have walked two moons in their moccasins.”

We added this new theme to our class list at the end of our reading block, and it has been popping up in many student’s reading since then.

Since our class definition of theme is “a message that can be applied to everyday life”, I spent much of last week thinking about this idea as I interacted with my students, especially during interactions where students just didn’t appear to be giving their best effort. Thinking about the fact that these “resistant” students may be dealing with some distracting concerns or inner struggles helped me to meet them with patience rather than an underlying tone of frustration.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. – Ian MacLaren (here’s a link to a discussion about this quote.)

I know that my instruction occasionally suffers when something in my personal life is weighing on me. Of course the same could be true of my young students when they are trying to learn new concepts. If they have something else on their minds, it’s going to be hard for them to give their best effort. Perhaps my instruction needs to be more engaging, perhaps I need to rethink the activity, or perhaps they are just carrying some inner burden that is making it hard to do their best thinking.

This doesn’t mean they don’t still have to try their best, but keeping this in mind helps me to meet them with patience and empathy. This has helped to make the classroom more compassionate, and therefore more conducive to learning, for myself and my students.

We need to show our students what Self-Directed learning looks like

http://brightdrops.com/dr-seuss-quotes

http://brightdrops.com/dr-seuss-quotes

Our students need to be independent learners. I believe that should be one of our primary goals; to help students learn how to learn. Not just learn bits of information or specific skills, but learn how to independently seek out and acquire the information or skills that their future life will demand. There are a lot of different ways to label this type of learning or talk about what this means; 21st century skills, 21st century literacies, the meta-processes, etc. But basically, to be successful in contemporary society our students will need to be able to do these things:

 Find relevant information (text, audio, video, etc.)

Analyze and validate that information

Synthesize it

Communicate it

Collaborate with it

Problem-solve with it

And leverage it

That’s a lot. Now, does a 1st grader need to know all this? No. A 5th grader? I don’t know. But I do believe that all students need to be on the path towards this learning independence. So, if they need to be learning how to do this, we as their teachers need to know how to do it. We need to personally experience and understand the process involved, and be able to model that process for our students.

Until we see ourselves as learners and intentionally show our students that we are, we can’t be the educators our students need us to be. – Dean Shareski

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk about this type of self-directed learning in terms of teachers learning and integrating technology into instruction. But really, this type of self-directed learning can apply to anything. Google, YouTube, and social media allow us to learn just about anything we want to learn – if we are self-directed, independent learners.

Modeling Resiliency

Integrating technology is no longer optional for us. It’s not okay to say, “I can’t use this type of technology because I don’t know it or I’m not good at it.” None of us would accept that response from a student who was struggling to learn something new and complicated, so we shouldn’t accept it from ourselves.

Putting your hands up and throwing in the towel would not be acceptable for our students nor is it acceptable for us as teachers. – George Couros

However, the main reason I want to focus on technology in terms of teachers being independent learners is that it provides us with ideal opportunities to model resiliency and problem solving in learning. So, integrating technology is no longer an option. Alright. It’s also frustrating. When you work on integrating technology into your instruction, there’s a decent likelihood that something won’t work as planned… maybe about 5-10% of the time. That’s just the way it is. The day before, when you run through the activity after school, maybe with some tech support, everything can be fine. But when the students are there and you start the activity, something just isn’t working. Maybe the screen is blue. The website is mysteriously offline. The program won’t load. Or that spinning rainbow wheel pops up and won’t go away. If you are working with technology a lot you are going to encounter these unforeseen obstacles.

And that’s a good thing. It’s a very good thing. Because it provides us with the perfect opportunity to model what resilient learners do when they encounter an obstacle. Our students deal with confusing new concepts every day. Every day. Something that made sense when their teacher or a peer modeled it, can be totally baffling to them when they first try it. Or, concepts that they were cruising through the day before can suddenly throw them a curve if it is presented differently or has a new twist.

That’s what happens when you are learning new, complex, and relevant concepts. You hit obstacles. So, we need to embrace that feeling of confusion and frustration when we’re learning and integrating technology, because it is the type of feeling our students experience all the time. We need to understand what it feels like.

Just as administrators should never forget what it feels like to be a teacher, teachers should never forget what it feels like to be a learner – Josh Stumpenhorst

And what we do when these obstacles rear their head in the middle of instruction is vitally important. If we get visibly frustrated or disappointed and just turn it off and say something to the effect of, “It’s not working. I can’t figure it out,” what message are we sending our students? That it’s okay to give up when something is confusing? We would never tell them that, so we can’t model it.

Instead, we should show resilience and try to problem-solve the obstacle. This is precisely what we want our students to do when they get stuck.

Technology is thoroughly ingrained in my classroom, it’s just an assumed part of our learning. And that means there are plenty of times that glitches interrupt our activities. But I try not to treat them like interruptions, they are simply another learning opportunity.  So, I take some time to troubleshoot the problem, and as I do it I ”think-aloud” my process as I do when I’m modelling anything, to explain to the students what I’m trying and why. Now, I’m not expecting them to understand the steps I’m taking or to learn how to fix computer problems. What I’m trying to show them is how I approach unexpected obstacles. So, I’ll tell them that first I think of similar problems that I may have encountered, to model metacognition and transference of knowledge. Then I’ll try a few little tricks that often work for similar problems. Sometimes I’ll take a minute to search online for solutions that others have posted. And I’ll quickly scan and analyze the results. And the whole time I’m explaining what I’m doing and why.

Now, I don’t do this for more than 5 minutes at most because I don’t want to lose time that the students could be doing things. But to me, taking 5 minutes, a few times a week, to model active problem-solving of real obstacles, is a valuable use of time. After a few minutes if I haven’t fixed the problem, I might say something to the effect of, “I can’t figure this out right now and I don’t want to take any more time because we have so many great things to do today. But after school, or tonight, I’ll get back to it and I’ll figure it out. I may need to ask someone for help. If no one at school can help me, I’ll ask the teachers we collaborate with around the world for help. So, I’ll figure it out and we’ll get back to it tomorrow. Okay?” And then we shift gears and move on with our learning. So I’m modeling for them that I’m not going to give up, I’m confident that I’ll get it eventually, and that I’ll ask for help if I need it, even if it’s help from someone in California, Canada, or Australia.

Learning Through “Mistakes”

I also want my students to know that I make mistakes when I’m learning new things, just like they do. Mistakes are part of learning. Mistakes, just as much as successes, are what help us improve and push ourselves. So, I sometimes share the little learning missteps I make with my students. At first they’re kind of taken aback and they try to make me feel better, like they assume I’m devastated by the fact that I’m admitting a mistake. They get really protective, “No! No! Mr. Salsich that was awesome. Don’t worry! You’re the best!”  (Of course, some of them are like, “Yeah, what were you thinking? That was a total mistake!”) But I share these with them because I want them to see that everyone makes mistakes when they are learning. And I also want to show them that I’m fine with it, that it is just an opportunity for me to learn. I think as teachers we need to make our own learning visible, mistakes and all.

When we make our learning transparent, we become teachers – George Siemans

Here is a post from my classroom blog that deals with what to do when “mistakes” happen during the learning process: Marble Mazes – Learning Through “Mistakes”. The students, all third graders, came up with some fantastic ideas about the value of learning from mistakes. Here are a few of their thoughts:

 Mistakes are good, as long as you are learning from your mistakes. – Carly

Making mistakes is not a failure. If you are doing something and you mess up and try again it isn’t considered as a failure. If you give up, then it is a failure. If you want to do something, remember this; confidence is the key. – Jennifer

Sometimes you just have to believe in yourself and try new strategies – Chris

When Kayla, Maura, and I were doing the marble maze I got kind of mad when something didn’t work the way I was hoping it would. But then I would just calm myself down and relax and say to myself, “Keep going. Nothing is right or wrong.” – Sophia

Some pretty good advice. So, when you as a teacher are learning something new and complex – whether it’s integrating technology, or adopting the common core, or remodeling a bathroom –  be ready for mistakes. Embrace them, learn from them. Be resilient and determined, just as we want our students to be. And I would say, share that learning with your students. Model what self-directed, resilient learners do.

No student ever refused to learn technology until s/he received a PD session on it.

Play around.

Experiment.

Fail.

Learn.

– Angela Watson

If there is something you’re interested in or something you think might improve your instruction – learn it. Don’t wait for PD. You don’t have to be dependent on workshops. The information is out there. There are countless other people who have probably had the same interest or question as you, and they’ve shared tips and directions.

You just have to find the information and be ready to fumble with it as you learn. That is what we are asking our students to do. They need their teachers doing it alongside them.

A small (yet huge) example of the power of Twitter for student learning

I have been using Twitter for personalized professional learning for about three years now. That’s all I use it for, and it has had a profound impact on my teaching. The benefits of my PLN (personal learning network) for my professional growth has been enormous, yet lately I have been wondering how to provide my students with a comparable network for their own learning. This question is an ongoing exploration, but in the meantime I have been finding ways to leverage my network to help them in their learning. This post discusses one such example.

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My 5th grade students are in the midst of working on self-selected social studies projects centered around “the 5 themes of geography.” They have chosen a wide range of topics, which is only fitting since they have a wide range of interests. This makes the learning exciting and unpredictable, but it also makes it challenging for me to guide each student to the unique resources that they may need for their individual investigations.

One of my students, Mary, is exploring the history of Australia, specifically how the provinces came to be formed and named. She had made a lot of progress and found many answers but, as is often the case, her answers lead to more questions. Having difficulty finding grade-level information on the topic, I decided to contact a “colleague” that I knew through twitter – Ross Mannell (@RossMannell), a retired primary school teacher from Australia. Here is my initial tweet:

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I included a link to my student’s Google Doc where she was keeping track of the information she had already found and the additional questions she was seeking the answers to. Here is Ross’ reply:

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Not only did he find resources for my student, but he published an entire blog post just for her:

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My student, and the entire class, were amazed that someone they had never met (from the other side of the planet!) would take the time and interest to pull together such an extensive list of information and resources. Mary referred to him as “My other teacher.” They have gone on to exchange lengthy comments on his post and Mary is in the process of finalizing her project to present to the class and share online. (I will provide a link when it is published.)

Of course, not all interactions on Twitter are quite this powerful and Ross is an amazing, unique educator. (Be sure to check out his blog Extended Comments For Students for further examples of his global teaching.) Yet, this is a good example of the ability of social media to connect learners with experts far and wide. There is no reason our students can’t have numerous “teachers” – whether they are educators, peers, parents or specialists in specific areas. Innovative, responsible use of social media can provide our students with a literal “world” of learning.

Another example of the power of Twitter for student learning is William Chamberlain’s (@wmchamberlain) blog Comments4kids and the accompanying hashtag (#comments4kids). He has done a phenomenal job of connecting students to “teachers” all around the world.

Already this morning I have had two of my own questions relating to instructional ideas answered through Twitter. I want to keep looking for ways to provide similar learning opportunities for my students.

Should I teach students to be independent learners, or prepare them to jump through hoops?

This year I switched from teaching third grade to fifth grade. The change has helped me to re-assess and re-examine many things about my teaching. Specifically, seeing some of my former students two years removed from my third grade instruction has highlighted a question that I’ve been thinking about for a few years: Does it benefit my students more if I help them to be active learners who can direct their own learning and find answers to their own questions, or is it better for me to prepare them for the demands of the next school year, and of the “education game” in general?
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http://www.flickr.com/photos/wandrus/6134593031/

I know what I think is better, and I know what I prefer as a learner and as a teacher. So my instruction tends to fall heavily on the side of inquiry, problem-solving, and self-directed learning.
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But I sometimes wonder if I’m preparing my students for the next steps in the education game. Because whether I like it or not education is still a competition – determined by scores, data, and comparison to peers. I often wonder if my students are going to be ill prepared for the next year. Knowing that many teachers do not value the things I do – and instead focus on homework, test scores, one-size-fits-all projects, and accurately completed worksheets – are my students going to struggle as they are thrown back into this type of instruction?
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If I don’t assign them an hour of homework, are they going to feel unprepared for the hour and a half of homework they get next year? Will my students flounder in their next classroom? And will their parents therefore feel that I have not done my job?
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This is the part of the question that really concerns me. I am in a service industry, and the people I’m serving are my students and their families. So what is it that they want of me as their child’s teacher? Do they want me to help their child become an independent, active learner? Or do they simply want their child to be ready for the next year of “schooling”, and to accumulate marks and grades and patterns of responsibility that will supposedly pad their transcript and help them get into college?
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