December 21, 2018

Upgrade Your Syllabus: Social Media is the Greatest Tool for Cultivating Lifelong Learners

The best educators cultivate intellectually curious lifelong learners. They instill in their students a love for their subject matter that extends outside the classroom and beyond the length of the course. The tool that best supports this endeavor is social media. Every teacher should create and share a network of social media accounts that help students learn more about the course content and stay abreast of new developments in the field. Ideally, this network provides a place for passionate students to continue learning, to contribute their own work, and to connect with experts and professional organizations well after the course concludes.

Currently, the best-case scenario for an inquisitive, tenacious student who enjoys a particular course is to consume any "additional readings" on the syllabus and connect with the instructor for more. Perhaps that connection results in a decision to take another course, to engage in independent study or a research project, and, at best, to publish work with the instructor. But how many of our students continue to learn about a topic when the course ends? And for how long?

In order to reach more students and help them engage with a subject or employ a skill beyond class, educators from high school and up must leverage social media. On social media, experts in every industry, from professors and researchers to practitioners and politicians, discuss and debate successes and controversies. And perhaps the greatest thing about social media is that students (read: amateurs) can also contribute to these discussions and collaborate with these practitioners. Students can thereby apply their knowledge and continue to learn in this space indefinitely.

Any social network like Twitter, YouTube, Podcasts, Instagram, or Pinterest can help a student learn more about her topic of interest, but these platforms’ unique media make them particularly well-suited to certain topics. For example, a math student in a high school class or even a 300-level data analytics course can continue learning her topic by following influential organizations and thinkers on Twitter, like: FiveThirtyEight, Data & Society, Pew, IBM analytics, Vala AfsharMax Roser, Nathan YauKirk Borne and Randy Olsen. A student interested in film could learn from YouTube accounts like: SundanceTVFilmBuff, CinemaSinsEvery Frame a Painting, Chris Stuckmann, Alice Malone, and Jeremy Jahns. And a photography student will find inspiration through following Instagram accounts like: US Interior, Vitaliy Raskalov, Elena Kalis, Vadim Makhorov, or Humza Deas.

Most educators have already built a personal learning network that includes educators who cover similar topics and industry-level experts who are building and acting upon that knowledge. But every educator should go beyond this and build a social media network into their syllabi. Teachers should start by hyperlinking the digital resources they use to learn. Next, they should hyperlink all the authors of the course texts (and the organizations they represent). Then, they should add resources from tangential industries and topics. For example, a moral philosophy instructor could add criminal justice reform organizations and experts (like the Marshall Project and Shaun King). Finally, teachers should connect students to other educators and students studying and publishing similar work. It’s important to note that this network will evolve as the course progresses.

Integrating these networks into the coursework will increase engagement and help students see real-world connections to the course content. Students will enter class informed about current events and developments in the subject matter, which will improve discussions and projects. It will help students specialize--or add depth to--an area of interest or passion and might even lead to their exploring tangential interest on or offline. For example, a science student might listen to a The Minute Earth podcast that opens doors to an interest in biodiversity. Or an art student could be inspired by the PhilaMuseum Instagram to study repatriation.

Not only does this style of instruction promote auxiliary learning and improve classroom discussion and projects, but it also creates a space for professional networking and the opportunity to publish for a wider, more authentic audience. After building a social media network into a course, educators should design activities and projects that require students to share their work online and collaborate with an expert in the field. Having students publish their work to an authentic audience of professionals with similar interests will push students to produce their best work, and it will also give them a chance to get quality feedback. Exposing students to networks of professionals working on common causes gives students a sense of what they can do beyond school. In both of these endeavors, students get to interact with experts and organizations in an area of interest to them. These publications and interactions create positive digital portfolios for students that will benefit them well beyond their time in school.

Though less visible and tangible, another major benefit of social media instruction is that it teaches digital citizenship and media literacy in a time when students are posting inappropriate, admission rescinding, employment terminating content and reading and sharing misinformation and propaganda. Schools can't expect to fix this societal issue without integrating it purposefully into the current curriculum. With the instruction described above, students are introduced to a professional network, which inevitably reduces the chances they post something they would regret or share inaccurate information.

When used purposefully, social media will open doors for our students. As educators, we need to lead in this area by building social media networks and mentoring students in that space. Our efforts will allow our students to pursue passions, network with professionals, and make an impact beyond the confines of our class or campus. Soon enough, our students will be tagging us on social media as mentors that steered them into the right network and the right field. And that's when we’ll know that we fulfilled our goal of graduating intellectually curious lifelong learners.

November 16, 2018

The School Community as Authentic Audience is Disappearing

Over the last few years I've noticed a relatively significant drop in student interest and initiative surrounding school-sanctioned creative outlets and activities. For example, our school newspaper and yearbook are struggling to stay afloat, students don't present audio or video productions to a school-wide audience, and even our "open mic"--one of the school's most popular programs--has become basic and predictable. That said, our students are not any less creative or active, it's just that they now have new resources to explore their creative passions via powerful applications and the internet, and they have an authentic audience much larger than our school community via social media. With these preconditions, how do schools recapture student creativity, interest, and initiative to help build positive school culture?

When I was in high school, lots of creative and committed students joined the newspaper to physically publish a newspaper bi-weekly (every school I've been at since struggles to put out a paper each quarter). These students, from editors to writers to photographers to layout editors depended on the school's resources to print the paper. This group physically distributed the paper to the entire community. It built a positive community culture; it inspired students to write, to ask for an interview, to submit a photo, etc.

Nowadays, in the age of social media, photographers and writers alike have found authentic audiences outside of school. Photographers create VSCO or Flickr accounts and share their work online. Writers find communities of like-minded individuals to write for, whether that's a Reddit page or a Harry Potter fan fiction blog. At my school, we had three talented school newspaper writers who decided to start their own blog to write their own articles for their own audience outside of school. It proved to be an amazing resource, one that could have benefitted our school community, but enriched only those who knew where to look.

When I was in high school, I remember looking forward to the pep rally pump up video. Video production used to be really challenging and projects couldn't be posted online easily for all to see. Students had to be at Town Meeting for the screening to see it. I remember these videos to this day. They built school spirit and common culture giving us all something to root for throughout rivalry weekend.

Nowadays, every varsity athletic team records every game. And film platforms have editing options for athletes to cut their own highlights. As a result, we don't have any highlight videos to play in front of the whole community. But students have countless chances to see all the big plays in every game because their peers post them online. Some of these film sites provide unique editing tools too. I'm genuinely impressed with what my students make (free or charge), and what they share with a gigantic audience from friends to college coaches, to players around the league. At the same time, I wish it resulted in some kind of school spirit building production for the whole community.

When I was in high school, I worked to procure time during Town Meetings to engage in creative shenanigans for a laugh, for an increase in student morale, and for shared experiences for the student body. For example, I planned a spoof to a popular music video, I organized a game of musical chairs, and I participated in our SNL spoof called "Tuesday Morning Live." As a teacher, I have seen some of this--it alternates between being amazing and cringe-worthy--but it's not nearly as frequent, unique or as bold. It's often an add-on to something that already exists online, and it often suffers from the fear of being recorded, posted, and excoriated after the fact--a natural deterrent to creative, outside-the-box ideas.

Nowadays, with things like Wordpress, Weebly, YouTube, SoundCloud, and even Twitch, students have opportunities to share their passions and creativity to specialized, yet massive, audiences. I had a student that started a political blog via Wordpress, I had a student who started vlogging about local events via YouTube, I had a student who started a rap career on Soundcloud, and most recently, I had a student begin streaming his video game sessions. I'm super impressed with their initiative and effort, but I'm sad that these endeavors exist outside of our school culture.

In all of the scenarios above, students today easily create, brand, and publish content for free. And they are able to share their work with a much wider audience than just their peers at school.

This shift has occurred in the last five years; it coincides with the moment when our students started accumulating more online "friends" or "followers" on their favorite social media platforms than we have students in the school. Social media provides the opportunity for something to go viral. My students know the major events and controversies at surrounding schools thanks to social media. So if a student wanted to show off a creative work or talent, it makes sense that he or she would rather publish it through social media than through school.

To prove my point, I'd like to incorporate a case study from a summer school at which I taught a class called Mass Media. The school brings students from all across the state of NH together onto a boarding school campus for six-weeks. In Mass Media, we kept the campus news via Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Blogger. Since students didn't follow or interact with each other online before this program, they relied on our platform to move their messages and ideas. Students genuinely wanted to show off the amazing work they were doing and they wanted to see what other students and classes are up to. In addition, the program hosted "coffee houses" where students shared prose, poetry, and music, and two talent shows. These were incredibly well attended and loved by the entire campus, students, teachers, interns, house supervisors, and administrators. This case study proves that when students aren't connected via social media, they are so much more likely to engage in community events and distribute content through community channels. And initiative, creativity, excitement, and positive engagement pervades this community in only six week!

So what has happened to our school culture in an age of free production and consumption of media thanks to big technology companies and a specialized, larger audience thanks to social media?

I don't think it's far-fetched to say that there are two cultures at our schools, what happens in a school setting, and what happens online. Many schools and administrators like to keep it that way. That's because when information comes from social media culture to the school culture, it often results in disciplinary action. And that's too bad, because there's also unique, humorous, skillful multimedia work being shared online by our students that is lost on us adults and removed from the school zeitgeist.

As a result of this shift in creation and consumption among our students, schools are losing the eclectic, fun experiences that bond campuses together. Every school needs morale, spirit, and creativity in order to carry out a mission or curriculum. After all, we get more out of our students when they're in a positive social-emotional state when they enter our schools and our classes.

Unfortunately, our extracurricular that depend on extracurricular interest and initiative are declining. This is coming at a time when schools are talking incessantly about 21st century skills, two of those being creativity and multimedia creation.

How are we going to empower (and critique!) our talented, hard-working students who are trying new things online? How are we going to encourage them to bring their work back into the school community? How are we going to revive our declining institutions and breathe into them energy, creativity, interest? And how do we do this when students purposely keep adults out of their social media spaces?

I have some ideas that I'll include in a follow-up post, but all of them start with talking to students. So let's all agree to start there.

November 11, 2018

Mindfulness in Technologically Saturated Schools

Mindfulness and 1:1 programs are two emerging educational trends that don't play well together.

Mindfulness is about clearing one's brain and being fully present in the moment. Our school has been pushing mindfulness hard for the last four years. Teachers are encouraged to use it in the classroom, the faculty practices it before division meetings, the school practices it before town meetings. We hope that it helps eliminate distraction, reduces stress, and enhances brain function. As a school, we acknowledge the problems of information overload, we understand that students' social standing is at risk 24/7/365 on social media, and we believe the studies that warn of the increase in stress and anxiety in teenagers. So, as teachers, we try to help them clear their brains and be fully present in our classrooms.

But what happens when after a mindful moment, a student opens his or her computer to all of the things that made his or her mind cluttered in the first place? How do we as teachers reconcile the use of technology in our schools with our desire to foster a mindful environment? 

Our school isn't the only school rushing towards mindfulness instruction; schools all around the country have embraced mindfulness practice at an astonishing pace. Silicon Valley is the only industry outpacing schools in implementing mindfulness training. There's a reason for this. Both schools and tech companies are inundated with tech and both see the negatives associated with widespread technology adoption on a daily basis. Schools see this first-hand, because we witness how technology manipulates the under-developed brains of our students. And Silicon Valley sees this first hand, because they are the only ones who truly know how their code and algorithms work; their embrace of mindfulness is a tacit admission that tech manipulates us. Like teachers in their classrooms, employees of Silicon Valley want to regain control over their cognitive functions, not to mention their social relationships.

Tech employees famously don't let their children use technology. Nevertheless, Silicon Valley pumps devices into schools at a stunning clip. Apple created the "Apple Distinguished School" model to convince schools to go 1:1, and now 2:1, with Apple products. Google released a super-cheap computer, the Chromebook, so schools can go 1:1 with a lower cost. Schools have to assume that companies like Apple and Google will continue to push schools to adopt new tech to improve their bottom line now, while also hoping to hook children on their products to improve their bottom line in the future. This problem is only going to get worse. For example, my school just adopted a 2:1 model with our Middle School. Students have an iPad and Macbook, not to mention their parent-provided smartphones.

In too many industries, tech is seen as a silver bullet that can fix (or improve) something--in schools' case, teaching and learning. We tell our parents that the tech enhances our classroom instruction and improves our assessments. We say that we will be using computers for collaboration and multimedia creation. But how many of our teachers have truly redefined their classrooms with technology in a significant way? And what percentage of our students' time on their computers is spent collaborating on multimedia projects? 5%?

It would be great to see Silicon Valley, schools, and parents push back against tech in favor of encouraging experiences, relationships, and conversation. However, in the short term, tech use is only increasing in schools, so schools like mine are working to mitigate the negative impacts of tech with mindfulness. What I've noticed in my time as a teacher and an Instructional Coach is that no matter how hard we try to promote mindfulness, once a student opens his computer, there's no telling where his mind will wander, and what emotions and needs will creep into his head. For example, if a math teacher begins with mindfulness, but a student then opens his computer to see his Hudl page (sports film page), he starts thinking about, and maybe watching, a game. Or if a student clears her brain before an English class only to open her computer to see her grades (yes, we have an open gradebook), then she gets distracted and stressed. Finally, if a science teachers engages the class with an interesting demo only to have a student open her computer and get lost in the most recent controversial Instagram post, how successful is the mindfulness?

So what does mindfulness look like in a 1:1 classroom?

How to practice mindfulness is up to each individual teacher. but there are some things that each teacher should consider regarding tech's role in negating the impact of said practice. First, teachers need to make class tech rules clear. Second, teachers need to make sure that they provide the time needed for tech mindfulness to occur. Trust me, fewer minutes of focused students is much better than the alternative. Third, teachers need to find the energy and grit to enforce the rules and make time for mindfulness. Fourth, it's important for teachers to practice what they preach. Teachers should show students how mindfulness helps them with their technology use. Finally--perhaps most importantly--teachers have to explain the science of how mindfulness works and how technology can hinder this work.

Class Tech Rules
  • No cell phone at all, computers only when I say so. Only one app at a time on a computer unless I say so. That one app should be in full screen.
  • I will tell you at the beginning of class what you will need on your computer (if anything). 
Tech Mindfulness Activity

Self Check
  • How am I feeling today - happy, excited, tired, bored, etc.? How challenging will it be for me to be fully present, engaged and focused today? Prepare to succeed.
  • What was the last thing I was working on in the hallways or in my last class? Is there something looming that I feel like I should be doing? Put it aside for the class. Note: this step depends on your sense of your students. After all, it could backfire if it reminds students of something they should be worrying about.
  • What will it look like for me to be fully present, engaged and focused in class today? Envision it.
  • When I check in with myself at the end of class, how will I know if I have succeeded in being fully present, engaged and focused in class today? 
Tech Check
  • Hardware: desktops, tabs, apps, battery. Software: anything that could ping me -- text, social media, email, etc. Eliminate everything I don't need for class.
  • Take what I will need for class and make it full screen.

Exit Ticket Mindfulness
  • Did we fulfill our goal and the class goals regarding staying fully present, engaged and focused
  • Did I get distracted? How so, and how can I avoid this next class? 
  • If I'm having a hard time with this, I should see my teacher (or a school counselor) 

Tech Terms and Apps to Reduce Tech Distractions

  • Terms
    • Full screen - when an app is in full screen users can't see their dock or their task bar, which eliminates distractions. Exiting full screen requires an additional click to navigate away. Full screen also keeps a user locked in one desktop, which prevents task switching.
    • Task switching - students (and adults) switch tasks frequently on phones and computers. This decreases performance on all tasks, and it takes a long time to get refocused on the original task. 
  • Apps
    • Session Buddy - this chrome extension allows you to save all your tabs so you can come back to them later. This allows students to close all their tabs, but not lose their work.

November 6, 2018

Inequality and the Internet

Last week, I spoke at OESIS Boston about how the internet has not lived up to its promise of creating a decentralized, free & open, and democratizing force in society. The presentation highlights the importance of teaching ethics, empathy, and critical thinking in our 1:1 schools and in our rapidly growing STEM curricula. The talk concludes with a look at a course I'm teaching that investigates the internet and new technology from a humanities lens. After all, we need to graduate informed digital citizens to help us stem the rapid growth of inequality facilitated by the internet and new technology. Watch it here!

October 19, 2018

From Classroom Tech Question to Classroom Tech Transformation

Over the last few months, Sam Moser and I hashed out a system for EdTech Specialists to help guide their work with teachers. From a Technology & Instructional Coach at Flint Hill and an Academic Technology Coach at Lowell School, comes a mission statement to help ensure that our work with other teachers results in not just the use of technology in the classroom, but a pedagogical shift that yields engagement, risk taking and sustained interest. Below is our diagram that we hope other EdTech Specialists adopt and embrace. We recognize that this is aspirational and challenging but also exciting and rewarding.

Our diagram and ensuing explanation was published by EdSurge this past Monday, 11/6. If you click on "read more" below, you can read our original article. Also be sure to follow Sam and check out his blog. Please reach out to us if you have any questions or if you'd like to adopt this mission at your school!

October 15, 2018

NBOA Feature, "EdTech's Classroom Payoff"

Last month, I was featured in the September/October issue of the NBOA Net Assets magazine about educational technology in independent schools. It's encouraging to know that a number of organizations are interested in how to integrate technology into the classroom successfully. In this interview, I talked at length about my course, "Passion-Based Learning through Social Media," and what I've done as a Technology Integration Specialist at Flint Hill--specifically the Tech Deputy program I launched with my colleague a few years back. Here is a screenshot of a part of the article; unfortunately, it's behind a paywall so you can't read the whole thing.

September 12, 2018

#MADPD Spotlight Series

This past week, #MADPD featured my talk called "Passion-Based Learning through Social Media" on VoicEd radio. Stephen Hurley and I had a tremendous conversation for VoicEd about teenagers, social media, and learning online. Listen here: Soundcloud MADPD Spotlight

July 10, 2018

Teaching Grit: Taking a Lesson from the Athletic Playbook

In my teaching career, I've witnessed rampant grade inflation in the independent schools at which I've taught. Coupled with that, I've witnessed an increase in student anxiety and stress. How do better grades lead to more stress? I agree with Angela Lee Duckworth's TED talk that the solution to this paradox lies in increasing grit and perseverance in our teenagers. However, as a teacher, it seems that no matter what I do to try to enhance these skills, I feel like I'm failing. But, as an athletic coach I've had a lot more success. That's because, when my team loses, we lose. There are no retakes, no extensions, and no extra credit. And "success" is variable, you do not have to win every game to be successful, and even sometimes when you do win, you didn't "succeed" (read: play) the way you should have. These conditions cultivate athlete and team agency and buy-in for a coach's instruction. This process fosters grit and perseverance.

One of the biggest contributors to both the grade inflation and the anxiety and stress inflation described above is the increase in the amount of retakes/rewrites, completion points, test corrections, and extra credit offered by schools. Students and parents demand these extra chances for a pretty clear reason: they improve grades. Of course, there's also some truth to the fact that students learn more when they retake something or turn in extra credit, but the focus is still on the grade. I tip my hat to my progressive colleagues that have switched to standards- (or competency-) based grading to get out in front of this change by making retakes all about mastering a skill rather than getting a grade. Regardless, this style of assessment does not provide students a chance to truly fail. There is always a chance to get points back, to show mastery, or to massage the grade in other ways. This trend does not exist in sports.

As a coach of twenty seasons, I've noticed that my athletes respond to defeat or failure in a very different way than how my students respond to a low test grade. There's also a difference in coaching a student through failure on the field and teaching a student through "failure" in the classroom.

There are countless ups and downs in an individual game, but when it ends, the team records a W or an L, that's it. Sure, they can complain about the refs or the coaching, but it's a well established fact that you and your teammates could always do more. And there are times when you feel like you and your teammates have done everything you can to prepare, and you still end the game with an L. The permanence of these losses presents rich opportunities for improvement (read: learning).

After every game, win or lose, coaches take time talking through the game's successes and failures and defining goals for improvement. Many coaches open it up to players to contribute during that time as well. These reflections focus an athlete's and team's attitude, which helps recommit them to their goals, leading to improvement.

After a tough loss on the field, a player realizes that he needs you (his coach) and he needs his teammates in order to not experience that feeling again. This makes that player and his teammates receptive to coaching to improve for the next contest. The classroom should work the same way, but it doesn't. When a student earns a bad grade, he feels that you (the teacher) need to grade differently, teach better, write an easier assignment, etc. for him to succeed next time. The difference in agency between these two responses is everything. To be fair, I have had students who respond the way I described the player above, and I've had players (and teams) respond the way I described the student above, but anecdotally, that seems to be an exception not the rule. So how can teachers make this the rule, rather than the exception?
  • There have to be assignments where students lose (or fail)
  • There has to be permanence to this failure
  • There has to be time to digest and reflect on failure
  • Some assignments should be too hard so that success is variable
  • There have to be times when students try hard, but fail
  • There must be an agreement that a teacher (coach) will be there to facilitate improvement via instruction and practice
  • Teachers (coaches) must value, encourage, and identify incremental improvements from one assignment to the next
  • There should be multiple opportunities to practice and improve, but not to change a previous grade/outcome (think about a season with many games)

July 4, 2018

A Teacher's Shoes Podcast Appearance

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a fellow educator about the course I taught this year called "Passion-Based Learning through Social Media." Eryka Desrosiers invited me onto her podcast and proceeded to ask a number of excellent questions about how to run a project-based and personalized class. I hope it will inspire more teachers to do the same.

Listen to this episode of A Teacher's Shoes Podcast on Soundcloud

July 3, 2018

Is #HigherEd Leading the #EdReform Movement?

No. But some institutions like Stanford's are trying. Last month, they released an article detailing some of their new programs called "Exploring provocative ideas for undergraduate education at Stanford." I was excited to see such progressive proposals (see below). However, until Stanford starts accepting undergraduates who exhibit these skills, high schools will continue to push AP-heavy schedules and SAT scores.
Though I didn't use the same language, I designed my elective called Passion-Based Learning thru Social Media to fulfill all of these educational trends. Embedded below is an explanation of that course and how I got there.

It predicted and embraced all of Stanford's "provocative ideas about learning" by asking students to holistically investigate a topic of their choosing. 1) "open loop" - the course helps students create personalized learning networks and digital portfolios. Naturally, their learning expands beyond the confines of the classroom and the semester. 2) Paced education - the course is entirely personalized since students choose their own content. 3) The "axis flip" - I run the entire course based off of a skill progression that I designed (see image at 14:55 in the video above). 4) Purpose learning - Students carefully construct their own brand. They write a mission in their "about me" page on their digital portfolio.

It took me several years to convince my school to offer an elective that encompasses the pedagogy that Stanford wrote to "[reimagine] the undergraduate experience of the future." Interestingly, one of the hardest groups to get on board was college counseling, because they didn't know how this course would look on a transcript. Now that the course exists, ironically, the top students at my school don't take the elective because it doesn't say AP in front of it; if they want to get in to Stanford--to experience the innovative program described above--they need to show rigor on their transcript.

I hope Stanford (beyond just leans in to some of these progressive pedagogical trends, but I also hope they will start to select students who have experience succeeding in this type of learning environment. Nevertheless, there's a long way to go before high schools and colleges close that gap. One way Stanford can help high schools prepare students for the future of learning they describe is to be more deliberate about how they plan to model this learning so that other schools can emulate their work. They should also begin to establish partnerships with high schools, colleges, and grad schools that are implementing these new trends.

When I tweeted this article out to encourage more schools to embrace this style of learning, I heard from a fellow high school teacher (@gedwards30) wondering the same thing: how will this look at Stanford in practice? So here are our lingering questions from that thread and an ensuing email exchange. I trust Stanford's answering these questions will help push these educational reforms to other schools and classrooms.
  • How does this learning fit in with Stanford's overarching institutional mission & how do staffing/cohort size/personal attention play into the program’s ability to scaffold and evaluate student progress?
  • How will instructors evaluate this style of continuous learning focused on skill competencies?
  • Is the final a digital portfolio? A capstone project? A thesis? A culminating experiment?
  • How will instructors provide guidance in student inquiry and structured evaluation of student progress to empower this style of learning? 
  • How do administrators allow teachers the freedom to impart their wisdom while also adhering to pedagogical best practices?
  • How do teachers allow students the freedom to refine or change their "mission" or stated objective(s)?
  • Might Stanford's initiative (and others like it) lead to an educational experience that functions more like a membership/subscription model rather than traditional schooling?
Educators, please add additional questions in comments or on the Twitter thread!

June 27, 2018

The Class That Wouldn't Stop Learning

This past summer, I taught a course called Mass Media to twelve rising high school seniors at SPS's ASP, and to this day--almost exactly one year after beginning the course--I'm still teaching them. That's not true; it's actually more accurate to say, I'm still learning with them. Though the class ended 11 months ago, we still share articles and questions on our Slack page and we still meet digitally every couple of months to talk about current events and how they affect our lives.   
The course is set up perfectly for intellectual discussions about the news and the media and how that affects our lives. Naturally, those discussions include a lot of conversations about technology and social media and how that is changing our lives. These topics and conversations resonate with teens, and this particular group of teens wanted to keep talking about them beyond the course.

The Slack page also served as a place for them to share ideas and articles. For example, I had students who asked for podcast recommendations:
and students who asked for help planning school events (like their March For Our Lives demonstrations):
While our Slack page has been fun and informational, this style of exchange is pretty normal for teenagers. In school, when completing homework or preparing for an assessment, students exchange messages and resources online. What's more interesting about our exchanges are that students turned those messages into face-to-face conversations. They wanted to leave the message board to listen to additional perspectives and articulate ideas in-real-time, together understanding that it's okay to disagree, to stutter, to think out loud, or--in other words--to make a mistake.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my frustration that these days teenagers have controversial conversations online, rather than face to face--I also wrote about why these conversations should happen in the classroom, face-to-face, especially for teens. So I was especially excited when my students asked to digitally meet (we live in different states) to discuss things like the Google anti-diversity memo, Charlottesville, mass shootings (Las Vegas and MSD), or Cambridge Analytica. Since the course ended, we have had five Google Hangouts where anywhere from 4-7 students and I meet to discuss current events.

Sometimes these discussions came from an individual student asking me to host a conversation. For example, I received an email saying, "Maybe we can have a [Hangout] this week?... If we don't talk til after the break (which I hope is not the case... net neutrality?? Roy Moore?? Trump??? We need to cover this!!) I hope you have a great holiday break."

Other times, these discussions originate from our Slack channel when we feel like we need to elaborate on an issue, either to understand the issue better, or to clarify our positions and/or hear how other people perceive and analyze the same topics. For example:

How can we emulate this style of learning in other classes? How can we get students to continue learning about a subject even when a class ends? How can we get students to want to converse face-to-face about issues that affect our lives? 

I wish I had the answers to the questions above, but I don't. I have been teaching nine years, and this is the only class with which I've had this kind of success. I will, however, conclude with some thoughts as to why this group wants to continue having these conversations. Perhaps that can hep other teachers emulate this success.

  • Our teenagers don't have meaningful, intellectual discussions on their own. Or if they do, those experiences don't feel authentic. When teens talk about complex issues, usually the loudest (or most extreme) voices pollute the conversations for others who want to hear additional perspectives and articulate their own thoughts.
  • In school, we don't really allow authentic student voice. Sometimes we let students talk, but it's almost always with our topics and our rules, and that doesn't resonate. What's worse, often a teacher will impose his/her thoughts before the conversation begins, thus polluting this environment for those who want to learn form others and articulate their own thoughts without judgement.
  • It's not "cool" or "normal" for teenagers to want to discuss current events or how media affects our lives. So something about the fleeting nature of this course (summer school) with teens from different schools, made it cool and normal to care about these topics. 
  • Everyone felt comfortable contributing in class and in our Hangouts after class. That's because  1) the class, and our conversations, were not graded; so students didn't have to worry if their point conflicted with the teacher (or the teacher's pet). And 2) I asked everyone to contribute and I allowed them to contribute in a variety of ways (ask questions, read quotations, agree with a peer, or make a connection to current events). This ensured everyone had a chance to articulate his/her thoughts in a way that he/she felt comfortable.

If you have any thoughts on how I can make this happen with every one of my courses, I'm all ears. Comment below.

June 13, 2018

#Rancière18 - Why I don't Teach Content Anymore (joking, but not really)

A group of us are reading Rancière's "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" to try to connect his lessons to contemporary education. This is a reflection on chapter two, "The Ignorant One's Lesson" that will be posted here and on Jared Colley's blog here
And now, a summary for those who are not caught up :) While chapter one focuses largely on how to foster student "will" (or as @nick_dressler wrote last week, student "want to") to "emancipate" them (rather than "stultify" via "explication"),  chapter two is concerned with how to do that. For teachers, Rancière highlights the benefits of universal teaching, intellectual freedom, and playing the role of the "ignorant master." For students, Rancière praises focusing attention, researching deeply, and achieving a growth mindset.

Throughout this chapter, I couldn't stop comparing Rancière's words to an elective I taught this year called "Passion-Based Learning thru Social Media." I suppose Rancière is right that "there's always something the ignorant one knows that can be used as a point of comparison, something to which a new thing to be learned can be related." (28) When friends, colleagues, or strangers ask what the course is about, I always feel strange describing it as, "a contentless course" where "I just teach students how to use social media to learn about something they care about (a passion)." Obviously, there is content, it's just the students choose it, not the teacher.

I pitched the class as a unique course that leans into the way the internet and social media are drastically changing our ability to learn. What I didn't know until this week, was that Rancière beat me to it. While the contentless course works well for me and Rancière, it's not for everyone. I have presented on this course at several conferences, and (as far as I know) no one has ever tried to replicate it. Teachers and administrators articulate a lot of the same hangups about a course like this one. In reading this chapter, I learned Rancière had already understood, analyzed, and overcame these hangups back  in 1987! Below, I use Rancière's words and pedagogy to change the minds of those who are afraid to teach a contentless course.

1) How can the teacher teach if he/she is not an expert on what the student chooses to study?

Rancière answers this one with his title "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" or perhaps better with one of his section headings in chapter two, "The Power of the Ignorant" (31). He prefers a teacher who begins his journey with a student on equal intellectual footing rather than one who is an expert in his subject area. "Whoever wishes to emancipate someone must interrogate him in the manner of men and not in the manner of scholars, in order to be instructed, not to instruct" (29).

Perhaps most succinctly, Rancière writes, "to teach what one doesn't know is simply to ask questions about what one doesn't know" (30). He opens the chapter by showing the power of students teaching a teacher content. "'But I'm confused. Did you all, then, know chemistry?' 'No, but we learned it, and we gave [the teacher] lessons in it. That's universal teaching. It's the disciple that makes the master" (19).

2) What does class look like on a day-to-day basis? What does the teacher do if he/she does not explicate?

According to Rancière, a teacher must "interrogate" and "verify" (31). He also must allow the time and space for research. And he needs to direct students' attention to ensure they are learning.

Mostly, the teacher should become more of a mentor than an explicator, one who encourages, asks questions, and perhaps most importantly, promotes a growth mindset--or as Rancière would say, one who "forbids" the "'I can't, I don't understand'" (23).

Intellectual growth is not linear; the "route is unknown" (33). So as teachers, we need to lean into this. Emancipated classes should be flexible on a day-to-day basis. "The master is he who keeps the researcher on his own route" (emphasis mine, 33). Additionally, students should be able to explore and learn at their own speed, just as long as they're researching and focused.

3) What happens if a student doesn't know what he's passionate about?

In order to discover a passion, one needs to know himself, "that is to say, by examining the intellectual acts of which he is he subject, by noticing the manner in which he uses, in these acts, his power as a thinking being" (36). Every one of our students can do this, we just need to 1) ask the right questions and 2) give them the space to figure this out. Then it's the student's job to continue their intellectual growth by "[learning] something and [relating] everything else to it" (20).

4) How does a teacher assess? How do you hold students accountable? 

While I gather Rancière disagrees with grades, he does leave us with a number of verbs that he seems to value in student learning. For example, "[asking] questions," (30) "observing, comparing, combining..." (36) "seeking, [and] researching" (37). If a teacher must assess, it seems this is how he can evaluate a student's work on an equal intellectual footing. I think Rancière could agree with this style of assessment or accountability even if he doesn't agree with grading per se. After all, he writes, "[a teacher] will not verify what the student has found, just that the student has searched" (31).

It just so happens, this is exactly how I built assessment/accountability into my course:

May 24, 2018

More Apps More Problems: How the Next Generation Connects

Too Many Apps, Too Little Time

The Trend

For the younger generation, communication through apps has replaced text messaging and phone calls. The above image is a photo of the common room whiteboard in one of the girl's dorms during the summer session at ASP, 2017. When students arrived, and throughout the summer, they connected via Snapchat. Not only is this totally normal, it's actually preferred by teenagers. It's easy to ask someone for their Snapchat or Instagram. And that's not just because Snapchat gives you a handy QR code for others to add you, it's because teenagers spend more time in that app than they do in text. And more followers means more time on the app talking to friends! That's true of Instagram too, where more followers generally means more likes. And both of these apps allow messaging. Therefore, teenagers don't need someone's phone number when they first connect.

This makes sense to me as a millennial; Facebook was huge for connections in college, but without Facebook messenger, we had to share numbers. And then we communicated via text, a lot. Texting is ubiquitous to Millennials. The generations above us lament the death of the face-to-face conversation and the phone call. Is it now our turn to lament the death of the text message?

Texting is not dead per se, teenagers still text; it's just that this younger generation has so many more options in how it connects. More often than not members of the younger generation send disappearing text and photos through Snapchat. Or they chat on Facebook Messenger. Or they send encrypted communication on What's App. Or they DM on Instagram. Teenagers are all living through a unique era where a number of applications provide connections that are very different from the standard SMS that sustained the social (and now professional) lives of millennials and it's drastically impacting their lives.*

The Impact 

on Health

Given all the ways in which teenagers connect, an individual needs to keep up with a number of apps in order to stay informed. And each app has its own social norms, lexicon, and pitfalls. To be a savant on every one of these apps would be unbelievably time consuming. Heaven forbid a teenager makes a mistake or misreads a digital social cue in one of these spaces. Such a mistake would no doubt be permanent. Given the decreasing cost of data storage, it's safe to assume every message sent and application used is saved permanently.

The amount of stress and anxiety that this social life produces is drastically affecting our teenagers. As Jean Twenge argues in her book iGen, the increase in stress and anxiety comes as our teenagers go out less, drink less, have less sex, spend less time doing homework, have fewer jobs, and are involved in fewer extracurricular activities (I highly recommend iGen for more on the mental stress provided by these applications).

On Schoolwork

In high school, teachers are supposed to connect with students via email, but understanding the current messaging landscape helps me understand why students rarely write back. Email is not an application teens use to connect with each other, so they only use it begrudgingly to connect with teachers. It's just one more application that they have to manage, and it almost never delivers the endorphin rush of other apps.

The other major impact on our schools is the distraction (and trouble) caused by group messaging. Whether a Snap group, a WhatsApp group, a Facebook group, A Skype group, a  Discord board, or an old-fashioned SMS Group Chat, our teenagers are engaged in several messaging groups at once. This monopolizes a lot of their time. At any given moment, one member can fire off a few messages, and before you know it, the whole group of 5, 10, or 15 students is side-tracked during class.

On my classroom

If you read this blog, you know that I require my students to create a social media account to keep up with the content inside and outside of the curriculum. I've written about how I've done that in my history classes, my media classes, and in my elective that's called, "Passion-Based Learning through Social Media." I do this so students can build personalized learning networks and learn beyond the confines of my classroom. I think of these exchanges and activities as social connections that enhance learning, but that's not how this generation sees it. I still believe strongly in why I ask my students to do this and what they get out of it, but my students are less interested every year. I know that's because they're limited by how many apps they use effectively and by the social and educational demands that their screens already require.

While I feel like I'm connecting with my students on their terms, in their preferred applications, and teaching them in that space, it feels to them like something new to learn and somewhere else to invest time. So in the end, I'm not actually teaching them in their space, because any place with a teacher in it, or an app that's required for school is busywork. It's not worth the time, the spontaneity, the humor and creativity that they will invest in their other social networking apps.

*To be fair, you don't have to be young to embrace this new way of  all these new applications. Even my millennial peers try to juggle messages, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and many more.

May 7, 2018

#MADPD 2018: Investigating the Intersection of Social Media and Education

Yesterday was the second annual MADPD, an online get-together of teachers from all over the world who are "MAD" about Professional Development. Thanks to the organization of Peter Cameron and Derek Rhodenizer, and the technological capacity of YouTube and Flipgrid, educators hosted a number of excellent online PD sessions.

I took advantage of the opportunity for PD by hosting a session about my course "Passion-Based Learning through Social Media" that you can see here. I also convened a discussion panel that investigated two essential questions about teens and social media: 1) How do we get students (and educators) to see social media as a learning opportunity for classroom and extracurricular learning and 2) How do we get students to use their social media time for content creation in addition to content consumption? We had educators in many roles, from many schools, and from multiple countries! Please give it a listen if you're curious about the intersection of social media and education. You can watch it here.

May 3, 2018

How do schools get more out of Professional Development? Gamify it.

Candyland route (Hasbro)
Most schools have in-service days built into the end of the year to professionally develop teachers. In my career, I've found these days are rarely successful. Teachers don't have the energy or the interest at that point in the year to learn something that they won't use for three plus months. And the person who leads the PD sessions is usually wholly disconnected from the teaching faculty, whether it's an outside consultant or an administrator.

To address the problems described above, this year I designed our PD days this year to use gamification as a way to make it collaborative, personalized, and exciting. I envision teachers working together to incorporate new pedagogical trends into their curriculum for next year. Rather than accomplishing this goal with "talk-at" programming, the game facilitates "work-with" programming. Rather than commissioning a speaker to teach something new (something better saved for end-of-summer PD), this PD is fully personalized. Teachers get to work on their own needs within their own curriculum, and they get to choose which sessions to attend and which colleagues to work with. And by gamifying with Habro's help, I hoped to capture nostalgia and promoted (faux) competition to motivate teachers to enjoy their time on campus without students and to commit to pedagogical development with peers.

We wanted to highlight and expand upon successes from the current school year, so teachers shared successes via Google Form. That way their colleagues can emulate them and/or collaborate with them. To gamify this learning, I blended the various teaching successes into 7 pedagogical trends. These trends became the locations (or "incubators") on the game board that a teacher can visit to learn from and work with colleagues.

Candyland PD Gameplay:

On the Candyland game board, there are 9 locations. We will use the first (Gingerbread Forest) and the last (Candy Castle) as a starting space and ending space. The Gingerbread Forest functions as a space to reflect on successes from the school year. The Candy Castle will be the space to celebrate when a player "wins" the game. In the other 7 locations, called incubators, teachers have to complete a pedagogical task to improve their teaching for next school year [visit this document to see what pedagogical work each of these incubators entails]. We budgeted an hour and a half at each incubator, so that each player has enough time to thoughtfully plan something ready to be used next year--not something that will be forgotten come September. Finally, each player gets his own game board to write down what he does at each incubator in order to win the game.

The incubators range from planning student-centered classes, to using images for formative assessment, to developing interdisciplinary units with colleagues, to switching to competency-based grading for a unit (there's more detail in this document). The tasks get progressively more challenging as a player moves up the board. If a teacher doesn't make it to the Candy Castle, that's totally okay; after all, the best games are challenging.

Teachers Helping Teachers: Powerful Stuff
At first, teachers enhance an existing unit, but by the end, they rethink the way they disseminate information and present themselves to the outside world. Realizing that these are tough tasks for some teachers, the incubators will be staffed with teachers who have successfully completed the task this past year (based on their skillset and self-identified successes received by Google Form). Additionally, for each incubator there is a write-up about a colleague's successful implementation of each pedagogical task. So at each location there's an example to learn from and a teacher to consult with.

For the teachers who aren't comfortable running an incubator, I will recommend using the coaching model, where a teacher asks questions to push a a player to develop a project on his own, or using Sugata Mitra's "granny cloud" technique, where a teacher just provides lots of encouragement.

This game structure requires reflection, planning, and collaboration. Not only will this help individual teachers improve their class and grow professionally, but it will also generate a lot of ideas for the community at large--organically from the grassroots level--to discuss and work on together.

The Secret Sauce: Engagement
All this planning is for naught if we don't also generate energy and buy-in from the teachers. In general, teachers have an internal desire to improve their craft, but that's not enough to sustain PD days in June (summer vacation piques all five senses). To promote collaboration between colleagues and to improve pedagogy at the school as a whole, this game design makes for both light & easy and exciting & entertaining PD. There's no consultant, there's no "expert," there's not even an administrator with a long-term, strategic plan-heavy talk. And there's no preparation other than self-reflection. Teachers are working with colleagues who are in the same head space, with the same goals. That means everything.

The Candyland invention gives the PD days a silly but endearing aura. The game is quirky and unique by design, because we need our teachers to be creative and innovative when they engage in PD. For example, I intend to create a gimmick for the teacher leading the incubator; Lord Licorice can have a licorice crown or Grandma Nut can have some nuts to snack on. I will also use construction paper the colors of the Candyland board on the floor or wall to direct teachers to sessions. These gimmicks inspire smiles and jokes; the smiles and jokes open up conversation which can be quickly steered to pedagogical pursuits. Ideally, this fun improves faculty morale as well. 

There's nothing more engaging and empowering than PD by faculty for faculty; schools always win when they flip their PD goals from institutional demands ("talk-at") to what teachers want for their own development and their own classrooms ("work-with"). The PD described above creatively celebrates and spreads great teaching. It promotes collaboration, trying new things, and keeping up with current trends in education. But most of all, it's fun, exciting, and it builds morale!

April 15, 2018

Fortnite vs. School

A few weeks back, I read two articles about a hot new game that everyone is playing called Fortnite. I knew my students would be playing, so I kept a close eye on the widespread adoption of this new game in my school. This Friday, I became so fed up with the amount of students I saw gaming as I walked through the commons, I sought some data from the IT Department. A colleague of mine ran a report and we found that:

  • 51 students played Fortnite during the school day on Friday. That's 1/10th of the school. 
  • While 24 of those 51 students played between 15-30 minutes, 15 of them played for more than an hour (the school day runs from 8 AM to 3:30 PM). And 5 of them played for more than two hours. 
  • The top player clocked 3:26 hours on the game.
  • The vast majority of these players are boys (and underclassmen at that).
These numbers make me seriously consider shutting down the game on Monday. Prior to seeing these statistics, I would have argued that if you try to shut down Fortnite, the students are just going to find another way to play OR they're going to find another way to distract themselves online. I would also argue that if students are playing games in class, that's something that individual teachers need to address. But in investigating this game, and seeing these statistics, I'm starting to change my mind on how to use a firewall in schools.

What bothers me the most about this game in my school is that it requires a player's undivided attention and the rounds can run long. As a result, our students are tuning out their friends and their teachers. Even if they're just playing during a free period, this game drives students to check out of conversations for a number of minutes at a time--and by check out of conversations I also mean students who try to sit with friends in the lounge and play this game at the same time, as that doesn't lead to fruitful conversations. When large numbers of students play this game together it also excludes those students (and teachers) who don't play the game, or don't want to be playing (or talking about) the game during a free period, during lunch, or after school. 

I also worry about what visitors to our school will think when they see groups of students glued to their screens. This week, I was stunned when I stopped in the English hallway where I could see through the window of four classrooms. From that vantage point, I saw six students gaming. And those were just the screens I could see from the hallway! Again, it was mostly boys, and mostly underclassmen. While it's easy to blame this on the individual teacher, if students are gaming in three out of the four English classrooms, there must be a systemic issue worth addressing 

Finally, in a more philosophical way I worry about our student's inability to converse with students and faculty as a result of their addiction to this game. This critique is not reserved for Fortnite, but for screens in general. I've witnessed large groups of boys all in one place together, but on their individual screens gaming. I feel like we (students and teachers) are missing out on opportunities to have discussions and make connections. And that's why I'm seriously considering shutting this down tomorrow. 

Let me know what you think (including students!). Tweet me @MrShakedown and fill out my Twitter poll. Thanks!

February 21, 2018

My Course Featured on StartEd Up Podcast

This past week, one of my students and I had the opportunity to speak about our course on Don Wettrick's StartEd Up Podcast. We engaged in a healthy back-and-forth about how social media and personal branding can help students learn and create content beyond the classroom. I thoroughly enjoyed talking pedagogy and the future of education with an educator as innovative and driven as Don.

Listen to the episode, "Innovation through Social Media" on Soundcloud or Open in iTunes.

January 1, 2018

21st Century Teaching Includes Teaching Students What to Ignore

Today, teachers must teach students how to learn and what to ignore

Our most productive citizens and employees today are those who locate pertinent information efficiently, ignore irrelevant information consistently and avoid undue distraction. They are media literate digital citizens. It is a particular challenge for all of us to become media literate though, especially in our now hyper-connected world that can overwhelm rather than clarify.  We need instruction. It is more important than ever for our teachers and our schools to play an increasingly important role in preparing our students for this new form of digital citizenship

Everyone who has access to the internet has experienced information overload. And the amount of time we spend accessing information online is only increasing. Information overload is amplified by things like email and social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of music and video streaming. It's compounded by the ubiquity of wifi and smartphones. Even when we are not using our devices, we make sure to keep them close enough to us physically so that they can interrupt us at all hours.

Surprisingly, citizens are less concerned with information overload. Pew research discovered that, since 2006, fewer people have reported that information overload is a problem for them (from 27% in 2006 to 20% in 2016). Naively, 66% of Americans think that "having more information at their disposals actually helps to simplify their lives."

If we are using information to simplify our lives, we should be able to acquire relevant information quickly. But we're using our devices to consume information for longer. Common Sense Media reports that teenagers spend 8:56 a day "consuming media" (6:40 on screens). Similarly, if we are using information to simplify our lives, then multitasking should be declining. That's not the case either.  The Distracted Mind found that teenagers multitask for 31% of their day.

Spending 8:56 hours a day consuming media can't be conducive to meaningful learning, nor can 31% of a day be spent multitasking productively. Research has shown that more time online increases fatigue and stress. More specifically, increased time on social media negatively impacts well-being. And every study on multitasking concludes that it decreases productivity. One study concluded that IQ can drop as many as 15 points while multitasking.

Schools are the venue in which we educate and train our future citizens and employees. In order to succeed, our graduates need to know how to access pertinent information quickly, without distraction. We need to teach a new skill--how to ignore irrelevant information and how to single-task. But we are not, and what we are doing now is only compounding the problem. We are adding multiple classes worth of information to the pile of information our students already consume on a daily basis. We are assigning several assignments per night (sometimes multiple assignments per class, per night). We are assigning these tasks in a number of different mediums from textbooks, to the internet, to learning management systems, to pencil and paper. And we are demanding students access email and add spaces online where they get and submit information. These conditions are driving our teenagers to spend hours a day online and to multitask. And anxiety and stress have skyrocketed as a result.

I'm not arguing that school should stop asking students to complete the tasks mentioned above. The process of going to school and completing assignments should force students to access relevant information and complete tasks efficiently. But in today's hyperconnected world, students need explicit instruction and training on how to complete their work efficiently and effectively. We can't assume they learn this on their own. For example, when teachers assign research papers, it's implied that students will have to choose what information to include and what to exclude. Currently, instruction for assignments like this (one that many students only complete once a year) focuses on locating information rather than ignoring irrelevant information. Similarly, when administrators get involved in our students' online lives, it is invariably because something went wrong, leading to reactive disciplinary action rather than proactive instruction.

We need to retrain our teachers so that we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We also need to revise our curriculum and provide explicit instruction to students about what they are consuming online whether we are preparing them for research projects or explaining to them our disciplinary policies. These are first steps to developing media literate digital citizens who can identify misleading or irrelevant information, intentionally consume media, thoughtfully experience social networks, and focus on a single task.

December 20, 2017

Leveraging Twitter for Lifelong Learning

In education, we need to rethink the hackneyed expression "lifelong learner." Most schools have that expression in their literature, but how do schools measure it? Lifelong learning requires teachers to overcome two parameters, learning course content (even if it’s tangential) outside the classroom and learning course content beyond the school year. In my Contemporary World History class last year, I used Twitter to do just that; and I've measured the success this year with the amount of students who still use Twitter to learn about international news and events.

When students arrived in my class last year, they had to create a Twitter account and follow a list of 85 accounts that tweet about international news and current events. Almost everyday we started class by logging onto Twitter where each student would find an article (or two) to read about what's going on in the world. This paired really well with the course content--a project-based learning course covering major international events. For example, last year we covered events in Syria, Venezuela, Turkey, the South China Sea, Russia and the Philippines.

Frequently what students read on Twitter connected perfectly to the topics we covered in class. There was something really powerful about the fact that students were learning about events in the classroom while also keeping up with developments online in real time. For example, later in the school year, after studying the Syrian Civil War, students saw tweets and read articles about chemical attacks or the refugee crisis. So this style of learning reinforced the course content. It made the learning more tangible by helping students make connections between what we studied to what was going on in the real world.

This curriculum taught students the basics of a number of controversial international issues so that it was easy to keep up with them beyond the end of the course. Often a major obstacle to teenagers’ keeping up with current events is that they don't know where to start. News articles frequently don't tell the whole story, just the recent developments and students lack the background knowledge necessary to contextualize the piece. With Twitter in Contemporary World History we overcome this obstacle. Whenever I could afford it, I built extra time into our current events sessions to allow for questions and discussion. Students asked questions about current events that we didn't cover in class that appeared in their feed. More often than not, one of their fellow students had a read an article about it and could fill them in. If not, I would provide the backstory, or I would tell them to look it up. They then used the sources in our Twitter network for reliable, up-to-date information on the topic about which they were unsure.

Clearly I'm a fan of this course, and the most important benefit was using Twitter so that when my class ended, my students can keep using the Twitter network to learn about international events. A number of times this school year, my former students have come up to me and mentioned logging into their class Twitter to see what's going on in the world. One student said, "I check your Twitter when I wake up in the morning." Others have sought me out to talk about international events that they learned about online. I can't think of a better metric of success when it comes to lifelong learning. Students immersed themselves in a space where informed citizens and news outlets discussed the state of our world. And they continue to learn from that space beyond our time together.

It's essential for History Departments to train lifelong learners. My Contemporary World History class helped convince students that studying history requires a knowledge of current events and that it involves sustained study and the ability to make connections between past and present. And my colleagues who teach my students the next year reap the benefits when my students make current events connections in their U.S. History classes.

Finally, the structure of this course helped convince my students that they can and should use social media differently. They can use it to keep up with current events, to learn about controversies online, and to follow causes that they care about.  I'm not naive; I know I didn't reach all of my students.  Many went back to using Twitter for sharing memes and subtweeting friends. But just the fact that they've used a social media network to learn about something they care about (even if they had to this time), will help them do this again in the future. Teenagers are already using social media applications for hours a day. We need to inject that space with opportunities for “lifelong learning.” That’s how we fill that expression with meaning again in education.

December 14, 2017

Creating a Culture of Classroom Visitation

One sign of a healthy school is frequent classroom visitation followed by reflection and open dialogue. At Flint Hill, we’ve had success with a new program called Faculty 2 Faculty that has increased visitation numbers, pedagogical conversations, and interdisciplinary collaboration at our Upper School.

Teachers benefit in a multitude of ways when they visit classes. They can reflect upon and assess their own work when watching another teacher, which improves their teaching. Teachers can emulate the successes and avoid the failures of the teacher they’re visiting. And they get to experience class as a student--a feeling teachers quickly forget--including observing their fellow students in ways they can’t while teaching. Not only does that help teachers evaluate how lessons impact students, but it also helps them get to know the individual students better.

Most importantly, peer observation fosters productive conversation that leads to greater pedagogical development and interdisciplinary collaborations. Teachers genuinely want constructive criticism, especially from a peer (rather than an administrator that might be evaluating for a different purposes), and so are particularly receptive to feedback.

In my career, I can’t think of a time that I didn’t learn something from a classroom visit--be it something as small as a hand-gesture  I saw an English teacher using to get his students to dig deeper into the text or to a way a teacher incorporated movement to keep her students energized and engaged. Even when I witness weak lessons, I still learn things not to do in the future in my own classroom. Weaker lessons can frequently affirm the positive strategies and practices I’m already employing in my classroom.

Given the amazing benefits, how do school administrators build a culture for classroom visitation that includes reflection and constructive dialogue?

The "Faculty 2 Faculty" Solution

I have always valued classroom visitation, but until this year, there was almost no culture for visitation at my school. In fact, it was awkward when I asked people to visit to their classes. And when I invited people to my classes, surprisingly few people accepted. We had an Instructional Coach who hosted “instructional rounds,” but the same two people were the only attendees. Despite a tough culture to overcome, we started a new initiative called “Faculty 2 Faculty” that has started to changed our culture for the better.

1. Make it easy

After consulting faculty, we heard that one of the biggest obstacles to classroom visitation was that it was hard to organize. Faculty felt they had to ask a colleague in advance, which meant they had to plan, and it meant they had to put themselves out there with an email or a conversation asking for something out of the ordinary. To alleviate these concerns, we created a symbol (seen below) that any teacher could use to signal to another teacher that they’d like to come in. That teacher can accept the guest by returning the sign or reject it with a simple palm stop sign. These symbols are an easy way to welcome a visit or acknowledge it isn’t a good day for it without any awkward interaction.
Two faculty members using the "Faculty 2 Faculty" symbol
In order to get teachers to embrace this symbol, we performed a comedic skit for our faculty meeting when we encouraged more class visits. Then we followed the skit with a few timely emails reminding people to take advantage of the new Faculty 2 Faculty program. Though we pitched the program as something that can happen at any time--and it has--we found that with an email reminder, we got a much higher rate of visitation. These visits set off a chain reaction where those who were observed decided to return the favor, either later that day or the next.

2. Build in reflection

Understanding that reflection is instrumental in improving performance, we created a fun card (see below) that teachers fill out when they attend another class. The purpose of the card is to celebrate good teaching and write down some actionable takeaways. The observing teacher writes, 3 ideas, 2 questions, and 1 complement. They then submit the card to the observed teacher. This ensures that both teachers reflect (double the Professional Development!).
Reflection cards from an organized "Faculty 2 Faculty" day
3. Promote conversation

These reflection cards facilitated conversation between faculty members because the observing teacher had to exchange the card with the observed teacher. This proved particularly effective for professional growth because both teachers were learning together from the observation, the reflection card, and the conversation. The Faculty 2 Faculty program has been successful because teachers converse on equal footing. The visit is not an evaluation between a boss and her subordinate. It’s a collaborative process that benefits both people involved. In the same way that our dedicated Faculty 2 Faculty days created a chain reaction of visitation, so do these conversations. More often than not, the observing teacher invites the observed teacher to return the favor. 

The feedback we’ve received about this program has been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers genuinely want to improve their craft, and they recognize classroom observations as way to do so. Teachers are thankful that this program gives a fun, low-stakes way to observe colleagues. And we’re thankful for the pedagogical conversations, the collaboration, and the excitement that it generates in our community.