My Personal Learning Network

This week, I thought a lot about my Personal Learning Network. Teach Thought describes a Personal Learning Network as “the group of people that you connect with to learn their ideas, their questions, their reflections, and their references.” This definition was helpful to me because it emphasize that a PLN wasn’t always about sharing resources, which is how I was originally thinking of it.

Using this broader idea of PLNs allowed me to consider even more aspects of what constitutes my Personal Learning Network, but I realized as I was making the map that I was taking in many more resources than I was contributing to, and that my PLN was largely limited to Social Media or resource sites.

I think one way that I would like to expand my PLN is to engage in more Professional Communities / Associations that are not directly related to my content area. It can often feel as though I am receiving similar information in different iterations when only engaging in English/Language Arts communities. Although becoming a member of other communities can be expensive, I would like to participate in at least two others. I am considering ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), AMLE (Association for Middle Level Education), or IBEN (International Baccalaureate Educator Network). I would also like to explore how to be more involved with NCTE at this year’s conference.

I also think, in order to share more in my PLN, I want to make sure that I am regularly posting blogs, as well as tweeting out experiences from within my classroom. I am trying to actively use the #Teach180 hashtag, which involves tweeting out something from the classroom every school day for the 180 days of the year. Additionally, attempting to participate in more Twitter Chats will allow me to connect more with educators outside of my immediate circle, which will help to expand my PLN.

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A Digital Footprint Exploration

Digital Footprints are things we talk to students about constantly.

“Once it’s out there, it’s out there forever” is a phrase I’m sure they’ve heard so much that it has most likely ceased meaning anything to them, but I had never really taken time to consider the Digital Footprint I had created for myself.

My parents have always been involved with technology, and have coached me from a young age to be safe on the internet and to make sure my privacy settings kept my information secure for online accounts. When I became a teacher, this became even more important to me because I wanted to be able to live a life outside of school without constantly worrying if parents, or students, or colleagues would be able to see everything that I posted. When I received the assignment to Google myself for a grad class, I was please to find that nearly all of the results that came up were things I intentionally put out there: My teacher twitter and Instagram accounts, my staff listing on my school’s website, blog posts I wrote for companies (like this one about what teachers need from administration, or this one about being an introvert and a teacher), and a blurb for a book I reviewed on Netgalley. My vigilance for making sure all of the boxes are checked on my private social media accounts so the profiles do not show up in public searches has paid off.

My image search resulted in about the same results, although a picture of Chris Pratt with a stuffed rooster appears for no clear reason, but who’s to complain about that?

image search

The only blip in this is my old MySpace profile, which I have no doubt I had set as private at one point, but have no touched since approximately 2007. Since then, the privacy settings have probably changed and allowed old photos to show up in my search.

Although this is certainly not a significant problem, it is certainly not something I want my students stumbling upon, so I immediately went about deleting the account. How long, though, will those pictures remain in the search? I could not find any definitive answers about this, but am thankful none of the photographs I posted as a high schooler were anything more than slightly embarrassing. I am hoping the Google Alert I set up will help me monitor what else shows up without my intending it to.

I then took actions to intentionally expand my Digital Footprint, starting with About.me. Creating my About.Me page was a bit more challenging. I couldn’t decide what exactly I wanted to put in my bio, so I stuck with the site-generated information for now, and plan to do some research and continue working on it. I have added my About.Me page to my professional Twitter, and Instagram, as well as to the bio on this blog. I was also able to purchase my domain, TediSwanson.com from GoDaddy. Although I don’t know what I’ll do with this website, the possibility of a professional portfolio is intriguing to me.

The third action I took involved book reviews. Being involved in the book world is always something I’ve been interested in and I consistently use Goodreads, but Goodreads is a somewhat isolated world. This time, I copied the same review onto Amazon, a much more public market.

I think the important thing about this activity is that it made me think about actively creating the narrative that my Digital Footprint tells about me. I have been good about being a gatekeeper for my passive footprint, but have never truly considered creating and shaping what is available, beyond creating professional profiles. I think with students it is important for us to talk to them about this active footprint. It’s already frequently discussed that the persona created in public profiles is cultivated, but it is important to talk to students about the kind of persona they are projecting rather than using scare tactics or attempting to make them paranoid.

This summer, during a district sponsored professional development, I had the opportunity of attending a session with Rosalind Wiseman, who has a degree in Political Science but whose career is understanding adolescent social issues and teacher others about them. The session was about social media and started with an activity that asked us to look at our last 10 posts on the social media outlet of our choice, what that said about us, and if that was what we wanted said about us. I think an expanded version of this with students, potentially starting with made up profiles before asking them analyze their own posts, would be a great way to start talking to kids about how to cultivate a Digital Footprint that takes responsibility for what they are presenting about themselves. Helping students create an active Digital Footprint instead of merely telling them what not to do online honors the reality of technology in the 21st century.

 

A different kind of vertical alignment

cheer1
Taken 9/7/2017

Nothing about this photo seems remarkable. It’s a typical scene at a Friday night football game.

But for me, it captures something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about all school year: a boy who finally found somewhere to belong, a place that will push him to become the person he has always been capable of becoming.

Teachers don’t have favorites. At least not in the way that the world-at-large uses the word. That kind of favorite results in allowing certain kids to get away with things they shouldn’t get away with, directs the best instruction and all of the desirable attention toward them. Teacher favorites don’t come in that form.

We’re told, practically from day 1 of teacher education, about the importance of building relationships with students. There are countless articles, and books, and videos on the subject. Like this article from the Association for Middle Level Educators, or the well-known Ted Talk from Rita Pierson, during which she boldly claims “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Every educator everywhere knows the impact that building relationships with every student in our classroom can have on the learning that takes place there.

But there’s always that handful of kids each year. The ones you make strong connections with. The ones you see something in that other people don’t seem to notice. It’s not about favorites so much as its about one person not being able to give themselves to every student. So we take responsibility for a handful that we feel we truly understand. In my district we often refer to this as a “back pocket kid”, students that you watch a little bit more closely. (I don’t believe this terminology is unique to our district but I can’t seem to find any other sources referencing this).

One of the students in the picture above was that for me. From the second he came into my classroom, joining about a month into school, there was something about him that just clicked. I could see beyond his awkward and quiet 11-year-old self. Other teachers told me he wouldn’t do work for them, that he was naughty, that he got in trouble a lot, and I just wasn’t seeing any of that. I saw a kid that would do anything I asked of him once he knew I cared about him.

And it wasn’t just me. It takes a village, as the saying goes. In 7th grade he made connections with another teacher. In 8th, yet another.

When it came time for him to go to the high school, I worried. There was no way to keep an eye on him. His original passions for football and baseball seemed to have faded and the only time I saw him the entire year, he was wandering around the high school building just before school got out, very clearly not in the class he was meant to be in.

I had no part in his decision to join the co-ed cheer team. But his Instagram post from the first football game, captioned “best decision I ever made” was enough to make me teary. He has found a direction. A team that makes him feel valuable, that capitalizes on his talents, that gives him a purpose. It is the change in his life I’ve been hoping for since he was the goofy, quiet kid that didn’t seem to fit in my 6th grade classroom, wondering if I had any more books about football.

He is the perfect example of the kind of vertical alignment we strive for in academics, a perfect sequence of adults in a kid’s corner until something finally works. It is what we want for every student. When it happens, it’s nothing short of magic.

I cannot wait to see what he’s going to do next.

 

The Woes of a First Year Teacher

The group of students my school has gained this year has proved to be rather challenging. Parent phone calls started getting made by day 4. On the end of day 6, our resident first year teacher was at wit’s end. A colleague and I found ourselves in his room after school as he expressed his exasperation.

“For about 30 minutes after school, I just turned off the lights and it worked. People walked through but people got it. ‘He’s not trying to talk right now.'”

My colleague and I both found ourselves offering condolences.

“Your first year is always hard,” I said.
“Yeah, did I tell you that one day I crawled under my desk during passing period, curled up in the fetal position and cried?” my colleague offered.

Even as this was occurring, I knew it wasn’t helpful. Being told that someone else once felt your pain does not fix the current situation you are living in. So it made me wonder… what would help a new teacher?

winter-storm-58025_640
photo obtained from Pixabay, free for use.

We all know that part of the first year is struggling. It can often feel like you’re at the eye of a hurricane, everything spinning madly out of control around you.

Posts, videos, and books with tips for new teachers are easy to find. Like this article from Edutopia with tidbits of advice like “building relationships” and “blog with students”. And this collaborative post from the NEA with veteran teachers sharing advice based on their experiences.

With all of the posts floating around out there, I’ve yet to see anything with advice for veteran teachers about what they can do to help new teachers in their building. What would truly make the experience better for students? Below, I’ve compiled a few ideas of ways you might be able to make a new teacher’s year better.

  1. Help them solve problems instead of leaving them to drown.

This is easier said than done. It is more easily done in a middle school setting, when teaming and scheduling options are available but not limitless. However, finding ways to find solutions to problems or move especially difficult students around so that they aren’t together could alleviate some of a new teacher’s stress.

      2. Make sure to share your struggles.

It is easy as a new teacher to feel like you are stranded in the middle of the ocean, fighting to stay above water alone while everyone else seems to be happily floating along and enjoying themselves. Sharing your challenges with new teachers helps them to see that it isn’t just them, that even veteran teachers struggle to figure out kids, or lose their cool, or have to give in and send a kid out of the room. Knowing that this is part of teaching and not just part of being new will help alleviate some of the stress.

      3. Continue offering help, even if the new teacher isn’t taking it.

It can be scary to take someone up on their help. It can feel like admitting defeat, or like your ability to do your job will be called into question if you take any help offered to you. Continuing to offer help gives the new teacher the reassurance that someone is there if they do want help, and they may come to you eventually, or they may not come to you at all, but continuing to offer help defines you as a safe space should the new teacher choose to utilize you.

 4. Stress the importance of putting the work down sometimes

Many times as a first year teacher, I found myself devoting all of my time outside of school to school. It felt like the work kept going. and going. and going. As teachers, the work truly could be endless if we let it be. This feeling of needing to perpetually be preparing for school is a quick way to burn out. Taking time for yourself is maybe the most important trick to having a fulfilling career. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to merely tell new teachers to take time for themselves. This can feel patronizing and like it’s being said because you can see that they’re exhausted. Instead, this needs to be modeled for them. Saying things like “Last night I didn’t grade anything. I sat on my couch and watched TV and everything is fine,” is much more useful. New teacher’s will see that their veteran colleagues are doing this and realize it’s okay for them to do it too.

And teachers, new and veteran alike, if you need a little fire back in your soul, this poem is for you:

Using Best Practice to Teach Teachers

As the 2015-2016 school year drew to a close, I found myself considering professional development quite frequently. It came to mind as I discussed the possibility of my district adopting Chromebooks as teacher devices, and I considered my colleagues that would need significant professional development to be successful with that level of technology. I considered it as my PLC chose to move forward with adopting a new textbook series that is bountiful with resources but could lead to unnecessary stress and frustration without proper training. I considered it, a lot, as I sat through a district-funded workshop that was packaged as being something new and revolutionary but had very little to offer aside from a somewhat unimpressive, self-published book.

There are very few moments I can point to as moments when the professional development I experienced was truly effective and beneficial to my growth as a teacher, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the same idea echoed from teachers across the state.

And this, I feel, is one of the biggest flaws in Education. There are times when teachers are treated as if they are clueless, being forced to sit through yet another afternoon of Professional Development hearing about what exactly formative assessment is, and there are other times when we are expected to be magicians and mind readers simultaneously.

Research in best practice has proven that students don’t learn from being told to do something. As educators, we would never say to a student, “A fraction is a numerical quantity that is not a whole number, now multiply them.” We would model for them and show them exactly what it was they were expected to do. Yet, that is how teachers are expected to learn about their profession. Explaining the philosophy behind a technology-rich educational environment help teachers understand how to implement technology into their classroom, or teach them to be comfortable with it themselves; hearing the definition of formative assessment does not show me how to implement formative assessments effectively.

Just as we assume that students are not performing to expectation because they do not understand the material, it is time the world starts assuming the same of teachers and using best practice to help us meet expectations.

In order for teachers to truly improve, we need explicit instruction, we need modeling, we need to observe experts implementing the practice that we are trying to learn. In a perfect world, teacher professional development would involve differentiation, and closely working with a peer or an instructional coach or an administrator who could model best practice in the targeted area before guiding the teacher through implementing it themselves.

But how do we differentiate professional development for teachers while still honoring their skills as a professional? What would that process look like? Would administrators need to observe said teacher and identify a weak area for them to work on? Would this only happen during “on cycle” years when the teacher is up for review? Or would individual teachers be responsible for reflecting on their practice and identifying an area of weakness to focus on improving? What would happen when teachers that were known to struggle with a certain essential aspect, such as formative assessment, didn’t choose that as their area of focus?

Beyond differentiation, how would the limited number of instructional coaches manage to work, theoretically, with every teacher in the building? How would educators find time to co-teach or work in others classrooms to see models of the practice they are trying to improve?

While the logistics of a more focused and personalized professional development are hard to fathom, a third year of meetings about formative assessment indicates that the lecture-style professional development isn’t working to truly help teachers improve their craft; In a world where fingers are constantly being pointed at the flaws in our Education system, it seems imperative that we invest in us, the teachers, who have the ability to change that narrative.

As with most things, passion is key

It may not seem significant in the grand scheme of like… the entire world at large, but as far as the ELA classroom goes the “To teach a whole class novel or to not teach a whole class novel” debate is one that rages on endlessly.

Even during my Milestones in English Education course, I saw evidence of early stirrings of this debate long before schools had things like literacy libraries and group sets of novels.

Everyone that teaches English/Language Arts has an opinion on this topic, and it’s a topic that tends to stir up intense emotions. Within my own district, I have experienced the effects of mandates to have leveled reading groups, diatribes about how whole class novels are ineffective, and impassioned arguments made about why whole class novels are a teaching method that individuals will never abandon.

And while I can’t disagree that giving students choice is a strategy that increases engagement and student ownership over learning, my experience has taught me one thing about teaching novels in the classroom, and it is this:

If the teacher isn’t passionate about the book or books, the kids aren’t going to be engaged. 

FeverFor the last three years, I have taught the novel Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson in my classroom in one way or another. My first year, I gave it to a small group of kids that were advanced readers because of the historical aspects that would be challenging to them. It was during the creation of the lessons to go along with this that I fell in love with the book. My second year, I had an advanced class of sorts, and the students were divided into two groups, with one group reading Fever 1793, and another group reading a different novel due to a number of the students already having read the book in their 5th grade classrooms. In my other two classes, we read the novel whole class. This year, I read the novel whole class in all three of my classes.

I love the book. I love teaching it. I love talking with my students about Nathaniel Benson and Matilda when we first discover they like each other. I love learning with them about Yellow Fever. I love discussing with them the difference in scientific knowledge in regards to hygiene and medical treatments. I love working through the figurative language with them. I love taking them through the wild ride of a city plagued with such a devastating disease.

And guess what? They love it too.

Boys that read nothing but Rick Riordan, or nothing but football books all year love it. Kids that will only read dystopian novels love it. Girls that are in remedial reading classes and require small group lessons and a more advanced reader to help them work through it love it.

It’s a book they would never pick up on their own, and a book they will never read again. But it’s a book they get caught up in and fascinated by.

I would never argue that the only way novels should ever be taught is whole class. There is a time for ability grouping, and a time for book clubs based on interest.

But I do know that working through a novel whole class allows students to hear a proficient reader on a regular basis. It builds community through a shared experience. It allows for more specified individual instruction that does not exhaust the teacher while they try to keep up with the plot of 5 different novels. It opens students’ worlds to books they would never have chosen.

And there is absolutely nothing better than saying “we’re going to stop there for the day” and getting a chorus of “nooooo”s in response.

To abandon or not abandon? A reader’s dilemma.

Should I abandon this book or stick it out? Why do some people abandon books while others refuse? How do I coach my students through reading grit and endurance and helping them to understand that it’s okay to not like a book you read when I regularly abandon books I’m not enjoying?

These are questions I’ve been struggling with for quite some time, but tonight I think I stumbled upon some beginning of an answer and I’m wondering if it makes sense to anyone but me.

This summer, I was given the opportunity to work with the company behind a new platform for engaging and interactive online reading for students. The platform (and company) is Actively Learn and you should totally check it out. One of the blog posts I’m writing for them is about reading strategies in the real world, so I was thinking about what reading strategies I actually use as a reader outside of the classroom. This lead into thinking about teaching reading strategies in my classroom, which lead to thinking about how I want to start the school year, which reminded me that I wanted to have a more heavy emphasis on setting a purpose for reading this year.

At the beginning of the last school year, I spent time talking with students about why we read to set a purpose for the entire school year but for some reason (#newbieteacherproblems) that didn’t translate into having students think about their purpose for reading something for the rest of the school year.

And somewhere in this line of thinking it hit me: Whether or not we choose to abandon books depends entirely on what our purpose is for reading them. 

A friend, who is actively pursuing her life as a writer, reads books primarily for the purpose of making herself aware of the kinds of books that are already out there, and to study writing craft. As a result, she rarely (never?) abandons books. You can learn just as much about writing craft from terrible books as you can from phenomenal books.

I, a 6th grade Language Arts teacher, pursue most reading outside of school for the purpose of enjoyment. If I’m not liking a book or if I think it’s badly written, I quit reading it.

This lead me to consider the numerous texts I was required to read for classes and how my purpose for those was entirely different. I may not have enjoyed the literature review in Chapter 2 but my purpose was to be prepared for class and to investigate why the professor wanted me to read it.

Does our purpose for reading entirely drive our willingness or unwillingness to stop reading? Or is this some nonsensical thought train I’ve stumbled upon?