Mar 26

I was excited and flattered when an instructor emailed me to ask if she could interview me for a class she is teaching about being a technology integration specialist. Since it is a class early on in the program it mostly covers what it means to be an integration specialist – what skills are involved and such. So the questions were pretty much what I expected: What would you say are your major responsibilities? What is a typical day like as an integration specialist? (This was the hardest question to answer as no two days are alike.) What advice do you have for those looking to become technology integration specialists? It is this last question that was both the easiest and I feel most important question she could have asked. And these are the main points of my answer:

  • Expand your Professional Learning Network (PLN) – I learn SO MUCH when I take time to read my RSS feeds and just “listen” to the education talk that occurs on sites like Twitter
  • Be approachable, but not a door mat. – It is important that the educators and students you support know that you will help them when they need it, but don’t do the work for them. If needs support keep your hands off of their computer if at all possible. This may possibly be one of the hardest things I had to learn because “I can do it faster.” But, if you fix the problems for them, they will come back again expecting you to fix another problem and won’t ever learn the skills themselves.
  • Don’t let your work take over your life. – It is so easy to sit down “for just a few minutes” with your computer in the evening and then realize that two hours have passed. One of my favorite aspects of my job is that I get to explore the internet for new tools and exciting ways to use them in the classroom. But this can be very time consuming and can cause you to feel overwhelmed if you are not careful.

There were of course a number of other things I could have said, but I felt these were some of the biggest ideas that I wanted to convey.  And of course as soon as I publish this post there will be even more that I wished I had added.

Mar 26

Have you ever noticed the number of people that are apparently on serious power trips in the world of education? From the physics instructor who destroys a laptop in class to emphasize that laptops are not allowed in his class. (What is this guys scared of anyway? That students might learn additional information than he isn’t giving in his lecture??) Or administrators that create rules for students simply so they can play “Gotcha!” when a student breaks the rules. To districts blocking Youtube, photosharing sites and a vast number of other internet tools all in the name of internet safety. Or the classroom teacher that simply feels that if they were capable of learning without all these “new, fancy tools” their students should be able to do so as well. All of these are intended to make sure everyone around knows “who’s in charge” and that deviants will be punished. 

But why? Why must there be keepers of the knowledge or controllers of the access? If our goal as educators is to make sure our students are prepared for life after school, why then are we actually preparing them for life thirty to forty years ago? Billie McNamara in an article title “The Skill Gap” states “Today, basic soft skills dominate workplace needs: interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge; skills and abilities such as ethics, personal organization and work habits; time management; teamwork and interpersonal communication; anger management; reasoning and problem solving; and managing one’s learning.” How are we preparing students for a work environment that requires them to manage their own time, work with others, manage their own learning and solve problems if we are controlling every move they make? It seems to me that we are moving students in the exact opposite direction of where we want them to be by NOT allowing them to think for themselves or have any say in the direction of their learning. 

Personally it is so rewarding to give students the power select which tools they will use in the learning process and to give them a say in how to reach the learning objectives. This not only allows students to learn those “soft skills” that so many employers are looking for in new employees, but it actually reduces stress on the teacher – it’s really quite liberating. So what do you say? Can you give it a try? Just let go…

Mar 26

I have a confession to make…

I failed the second semester of my junior year of high school. 

I had chosen Ralph Waldo Emerson as a topic for my junior research paper, which was the majority of the semester’s grade. I painstakingly created 25 note cards documenting my research and wrote my rough and final drafts. But when it cam time to turn in my paper, I had lost my note cards. And since I have been a procrastinator since birth, I didn’t complete the assignment until the night before it was due. This meant that I didn’t have time to re-make those note cards and received an F on my research paper and an F for the semester.

To this day I have no idea what I learned from that experience. As I am scouring my action research paper for APA errors, I am having flashbacks to that time of failure in my life. I still wonder why it wasn’t enough she had already given me the points for completing the note cards on time earlier in the semester. I don’t know if I ever told my parents the real reason I failed that assignment. I don’t even remember if I had enough guts to ask for extended time to create a new set. I wonder now as I did then, what the educational value failing a student for losing a stack of cards was. I still enjoy Emerson’s work and remember some of what I had learned from the research. But what I remember most is crying while digging through my closet, locker and car looking for those cards because I knew that without them I would fail. 

So I guess I did learn from that experience, although it wasn’t what my teacher had intended. I still lose paper almost as soon as I put it down (so thank goodness I can take notes on my laptop.) And I still have no idea how to properly document my resources in MLA or APA. What I learned was that was one thing that I never wanted to do to my students, even though at the time I didn’t know I was going to be an educator. All I knew was that I never wanted to another person to feel the way I had because of something I had done.

Mar 26

Textbooks are a staple in most classrooms and can be a great resource for teachers. The problem I find (not that I am even close to the first person to realize this) is that a large number of teachers use their textbook and accompanying teacher’s guide as the ONLY resource for teaching. This is prominent from kindergarten all the way to post-secondary education. The problem with this is that teaching from the textbook shuts the door in the faces of students and locks them into their classrooms. Our world holds so many resources for educators – all we have to do is open our eyes and minds and look for them. 

Students today are collaborative, communicate with their peers on a highly frequent basis, create, explore, adapt, and design – except when they are in school. Often times when students enter school they are asked to “power down” their phones, computers, and themselves. On their own, students use technology to explore their world and communicate with others. But in their classrooms, many times the option to use those tools is not available to them. In a large portion of these classrooms, the reason isn’t a lack of access, but rather teachers simply aren’t allowing the students to use the tools available to them.  This lack of use is usually born out of one thing – fear. A fear that the technology may not work properly, a fear that things may not “go as planned,” a fear that the students might abuse the technology, and probably mostly a fear of not being the expert in front of students. While it is okay to be afraid, it is not acceptable to allow that fear to prevent you from creating a more appropriate learning environment for students. Even if nothing works they way you plan and the students end up having to show you how to use the tools, the learning that will occur in that time will be completely worth it. The experience may even allow you to see strengths in your students that you may have never before seen.

If you are reading this post you are probably not tied to your textbook, but I’m willing to bet that you know someone that is. So why not offer up a few ideas to that person that will help them expand a learning environment beyond their classroom walls, or at least beyond the covers of the textbook? Introduce someone to the power of the internet for not only creating more engaging learning environment, but also as a way to extend their own learning network. If you’re just starting to explore your options outside of your textbook, seek out another person to either explore with you or someone who could act as a mentor and guide in your journey. Trust me, whether you enter the partnership as a guide or “student” you will find yourself learning from the experience and eager to do more learning and exploring.

A couple of days ago someone on Twitter posted a link to David Warlick’s article If you can’t use technology get out of teaching! which inspired this post, so thanks to my PLN in Twitter (and David Warlick of course.)

Mar 26

Our district, like most, has an Internet filter and guidelines for what gets filtered. And, like most educators that work in districts with filters, I hit that filter a minimum of once a day, most days it much more than that if I’m reading and researching. There are a number of sites that I use as an educator and technology specialist professionally that are blocked within our district, Twitter being the most frustrating block for me (although I do find access to it through a couple of widgets). I use Twitter as a professional in a number of ways, from learning from others, to share my learning, as well as the occasional “Help, I’m looking for _____ resources.” And my Twitter network never fails to deliver when I need it. The latest frustration is with image sharing sites. We’ve got a large number of teachers starting to implement blogging into their classrooms and are wanting to use a template from the Internet. The problem is that the images for those templates are hosted on image sharing sites that are blocked in the district, which means the templates can’t be properly viewed within the district. The worst part is that teachers and students have the same filtering levels, so teachers don’t even have the ability to evaluate a website for classroom appropriateness if it does happen to be blocked for the students.

I understand the concept for blocking, that we’re keeping students from viewing inappropriate content and materials. But I am often left wondering what we’re really teaching students (and teachers) when we block so much of the Internet. How can we fully teach Internet safety if we block so much of its content? How can we convince teachers that we trust their judgement to select appropriate resources and content for their classrooms if they have to rely on someone else to evaluate whether or not a site should be blocked? How can we teach our students to collaborate in our global society if we block so many of the social networking and media sites that exist today? These are questions that are often spinning around in my head.

I read about others using social networking, media, and bookmarking sites all the time in their classrooms and district, but as we not only filter but do not supply our students with email addresses OR allow them to use their personal emails, we are not able to use a large number of these tools as they are intended. As I’m not in a position to actually make the decisions as to what types of access students have, I often find myself spinning my wheels when I hit that filter searching for a tool to use in the classroom. Some day surely we will be able to give our students safe access to all of the tools that are available out there, and surely if we all keep trying and promoting the incredible advantages to the massive number of tools that are available to us on the Internet. Considering our students (and teachers) are using a large number of social networking and media sites at while they are at home, we won’t have to spend much time teaching the tools. We’ll actually be able to teach our students (and teachers) how to use these tools appropriately and how to harness their power in the classroom in order to become responsible citizens in today’s global society.

Mar 26

I am an Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS). It is my job to help teachers to integrate technology into their instruction in order to improve the learning experience for students. When I grappled with the decision of whether or not to leave the classroom I finally decided that I can impact the learning of far more students in this role and took the leap, and I truly love my job. I get the opportunity to lead PD sessions, co-teach lessons with other teachers, and offer one-on-one sessions all in the hopes that more students will be impacted by an improved and more appropriate learning environment.

All that being said, the line between “ITS” and “Help Desk” are often blurred. During my training sessions I hand out my card to anyone who wants it and offer my continued support for helping participants integrate technology into their instruction. But because I hand out my card so readily, I also get a number of calls from people wanting me to fix their computer or hardware. This is where the lines start to blur. Because I am fluent a number of software and internet applications, I have by default learned to trouble-shoot computers and a number of different types of hardware. So the teacher in me want to teach others how to trouble-shoot themselves so they don’t have to make more pleas for help, but the ITS in me wants to tell people that it isn’t my job to fix their computer and that they need to call their building’s tech or the Help Desk. Of course I usually end up teaching them to fix it and then I end up getting more calls and emails for hardware issues.

Another reason the lines are blurred is because I manage the accounts, usernames, and a variety of other “technical support” types of functions for a variety of applications in the district. For example, because I am the website administrator/trainer for our district, I also inherited the job of managing the web server. This further leads people to call me to help them when they need both instructional and technical help with technology. And again, the teacher in me usually wins out and I end up teaching more people how to trouble-shoot and fix their hardware issues.

The reason I let my inner teacher come out in these instances is that I want the issues to be taken care of quickly so that the teachers can get back to teaching and the students can be more positively impacted.The fact is if they have to wait until their building tech can come check on their problem, the learning utilizing that tool will be put on hold and students will be negatively impacted. I also feel that the more teachers know how to do on their own for technical support, the more I will get to do on the instructional side of technology integration. I feel that if I just teach this teacher to be a little more confident in his/her abilities his/her comfort level with technology will increase and the integration will happen more readily. The problem is that there are just so many teachers out there and I get stuck in this vicious cycle that just seems to keep going around and around. The solution for now seems to be keep plowing forward and try to help as many people as possible.

Mar 26

In my job I run into a large number of nay-sayers, negative Nancys (or Neds), glass-half-empties, or whatever it is you call a person that always sees the flaws and defects in something first. You know them. When you show them how to use a blog as an online journal for their classroom, the first thing they say is “my kids can’t use the internet at home” or “no way I can get into the lab enough to make it worth the work.” As soon as you show them an internet-based alternative to the “Inspiration” software they don’t have in their new school, they’re pointing out how this tool only saves as an image so you can’t edit it later. When you show them how to create student usernames and passwords for their wiki or content management system, they’re upset because they already know their students won’t be able to remember the password. You know them.
And as much as I try, this can at times be a drain on me, both emotionally and physically. Just this week I was at a school helping teachers learn to use their new SMART boards and the complaints came in mountains. The vast number of pre-made lessons available on our website weren’t exactly how they wanted and they don’t have the time to learn a new tool. “Does the board really have to be re-oriented every time I move the projector?” “I’ve had that table there for three years and now I have to move it because someone put this board in my room. That table won’t work anywhere else in my room.” And this is only about a SMART board. I don’t even want to get into the conversations that happened when teachers found out that our contract with Blackboard isn’t going to be extended and that they’d have to learn a new tool if they wanted to keep their content online.
I have come to realize that it is part of my job to keep smiling and holding hands so that teachers don’t lose faith, so that teachers will keep trying new ideas, and so that classrooms can take yet another step to being student-centered learning environments. This is the most difficult and important part of my job and it wasn’t even in the job description when I applied. So after a couple of years, I’ve stumbled across some concepts that seem to help me do this, the most important part of my job.
To begin, I always try to let “Nancy” know that her opinion is valid. Even if I think it is an imagined hurdle or fear, in that person’s mind it is real and therefore I need to listen and validate it. I also need to make sure I stay positive while I’m listening and responding so that “Nancy” will see that there really is a light at the end of that tunnel. It also helps to be a quick thinker and problem solver so that when a teacher comes across a hurdle, I/we can quickly come up with a solution for getting over that hurdle. The next part is something that I personally have to work really hard at doing, and that is checking back frequently to make sure the solution is still working. I have found this one to be important because so many times if there is one bump in the new road for that teacher, that bump will keep him/her from traveling that road at all. But I have found that if I check back with individuals, it seems to keep the motivation up and that they will eventually feel comfortable enough that they can contact me without waiting for my emails. Finally, I have to be continually looking for new ideas and ways for teaching “old” concepts. This is because technology is changing so rapidly and new hurdles and bumps show up in the road every day. This one is probably one of the best parts of my job, as it means I get to spend time surfing the net and learning from my PLN which always leaves me inspired to do more.

And just in case you’re wondering, here’s a few suggestions for the problems presented above. For blogging nay-sayers: suggest that maybe at first try using the blog as an extra-credit opportunity for journals to see how many students truly don’t have access to internet at home. For those upset that free mind-mapping tools don’t often allow for changes and updates, point out some of the great online image editing tools that will allow for later “additions” so that teachers can demonstrate to students how the learning process is continually changing and growing. And for the teacher that’s worried her students won’t remember passwords, well this is one I still don’t have a fantastic response for so if you have one – help me out and leave it in the comments section.

Mar 26

Events of late have left me thinking and reflecting about heroes and their roles in our lives. When I was growing up my mother was my hero. She is a strong, intelligent, motivated woman that is always there for her family. She was also a full-time nurse in an intensive care unit, highly admired by her co-workers and supervisors, and even won bedside nurse of the year. (I say was because she completed her master’s degree a few years ago an is now a nurse anesthetist.) With all of these fantastic atributes, how could she not be my hero, right?
When I was classroom teacher, we always did an activity at the beginning of the year in which, among other things, I asked my students who their heroes were and what they wanted to be when they grow up. An overwhelming number of students would say that their hero was some kind of sports figure and that they wanted to be a professional athlete. Now, I’m not one to crush a child’s dreams and aspirations, so I always tried to work at the angle that the students needed to be successful in school in order to get a scholarship into a D1 school and get drafted/selected for their desired professional sport. But this is also when I started really thinking about how professional athletes size-up as role models and heroes.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of pros out there that lead admirable lives. In fact, I used to work with an amazing teacher that had been a professional soccer player and now as a coach requires his students have passing grades to continue to play. But by and large, the athletes that make it into the news are also those that are being arrested or are in some other kind of trouble. It is this that I find troubling for children, not only my own but for all children. I feel like that if children see professional athletes making massive amounts of money and getting deals from Nike at the same time that those athletes are in the news about DUIs and being arrested on gun/drug charges it sends a terrible message to children. It says that breaking the law and immorality are excusable if you happen to know how to throw or catch a ball really well. It says that people will look the other way if do bad things to yourself and your family if you are also talented enough to help a professional sports team win championships. The same issues arise when we look to t.v. and movie stars as role models.
So, what can we do as educators and parents? Try to be the best possible role models ourselves. Let our children know that we are human and are flawed but show that we learn from our mistakes, that we are life-long learners and continue to grow every day. We need to continue to support our children and encourage them in their education and outside interests. We need to let them be OUR heroes, as they are already our future.

Mar 26

So I sat this morning through four hours of training on the intervention program that was piloted in a few of our middle schools this year and will be at all of our middle schools next year. I started the session with all other instructional support personnel beginning a KWL chart for this program. The presenter, who is a representative of the intervention program company, comes to our table and starts talking to us. Everyone else at the table had met with the rep before so she immediately asks at which school that I teach. I of course say something along the lines of I don’t have a school, that I am an instructional technology specialist for the secondary level. That woman ran away from me so fast I could almost see the smoke coming off of her shoes!
Before she really got into the presentation she moved us all away from power outlets and told us there would be no need for computers, that paper would be provided if we wanted to take notes. So we all “powered down” for the next 3 1/2 hours (you read right). I sat and listened to the presentation and followed as best I could, although I kept thinking about how I was either going to lose the piece of paper on which I was taking notes or that I wouldn’t be able to read my handwriting later.
The program itself is not bad. Students take an assessment at the beginning of the year. This particular program places them in an “on or above” grade level class, 1 – 2 years below grade level, and then 3 – 4 years below. All classes follow a five-part lesson structure, which is all well and good, and “tiers 1 and 2″ pretty much follow the same curriculum – “tier 2″ having more support structures in place. The “tier 3″ students follow the same scope and sequence as the district, but has a very regimented class structure within which the teacher has no real freedom.
The presenter then walks us through a typical lesson within the structure. Not a mention of any technology. Not only is there no mention of technology, but when the question was asked if they could receive the materials electronically so teachers could use them with SMART boards, clickers, or other such equipment, they were shot down. There is apparently no need to “distract the students” with such items when they can’t even read or do math. (I’m not making this stuff up here.)
I never really recovered after that point, although it did shed some more light on the “no computers during training” from earlier.
So now I’m left to think “Are our kids really going to have to power down across the district in the coming years?” and “Aren’t we taking a huge step backward?” I know that there are many teachers out there don’t implement technology simply out of fear-be it fear of the technology not working or the fear of not being an “expert of all things” in their own classrooms. But are we really benefiting children and learning if we continue to validate those fears? Why is it acceptable to push students out of their comfort zones in school but not teachers? One would think that in order to promote life-long learning in children, one would need to be a willing life-long learner – wouldn’t they?

Mar 26

I was sitting in my living room a bit earlier this evening when the doorbell rang. When I get to the door I see that it is “Juan.” (Student’s name has been changed.) Juan was that kiddo that did absolutely everything under possible to purposely get under the teachers’ skin. He was a gang banger (or really close to it anyway), attended class only intermittently, had more missing assignments than completed ones, and had one heck of a mouth. To say he caused me stress would be an incredible understatement. To say he failed my class would only hit the tip of the iceberg. And to say there were days that drove me crazy, well that one is accurate. Juan was definitely on a path straight to nowhere good. In fact, more people knew him by his street name than his real one – even the teachers. Juan was one of those kids that really tested me as a teacher and a human being.

But, he was smart – REALLY smart. When he was in class and awake, he knew all the answers before anyone else. When he participated in labs, he always figured out the solution before anyone else in his group. And when I asked for feedback on the lessons he really gave sound and constructive advise – when he wasn’t cussing at someone. I knew that the window for “keeping him” was closing rapidly – and I taught 6th grade. So, I made sure he stayed in the classroom even when he was trying everything he knew to get kicked out. I knew that he was listening, even if he didn’t want to and wouldn’t admit to it. And I just really felt that if I made him stay in my room, he might just inch a little bit closer to the right path. The next year certainly didn’t see much improvement for Juan’s behavior or academics, and I lost track of him after that but I was quite sure he was one that had gotten away from us.

So imagine my surprise when he arrives at my door, selling coupon books for the varsity soccer team for his high school. A team on which he is playing. That meant he was still in school AND passing classes! We talked for a bit about school and how his life is going. I bought that silly coupon book, of course. He introduced me to his soccer buddy, saying I was always in his business but my class was still pretty cool. And then he says “And oh yeah, I want you to know that I’m getting a B in Biology even though my teacher is boring.”

I don’t often get to see my students after they have left me. Usually they become way too cool to talk to their sixth grade science teacher, and once they go to high school I loose track even more. But I am so incredibly grateful that Juan showed up at my door today. Seeing such a drastic turn-around definitely energizes me to keep going. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I think this child was put back on track by me. That decision was clearly his own. But, I would like to think that I played some role, no matter how small, in his decision to do so. Juan left two hours ago and I’m still smiling.