Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.

Practitioner or Wannabe?

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I do my best to write alongside my students. If I ask them to brainstorm, I “write live” and project it for them to see my thinking in action. I haven’t always taught this way because it took time for me to find the courage to show my process. Many of my students struggle with creative writing because they believe it is something one is born having and not something one can develop over time through practice. It’s the constant tension between writing and “righting”–as in “Is this right? Am I right? Did I do this right?” I save and share my brainstorming in a folder on Google Drive so that by the end of the day, there are four different takes on any given exercise.

Still, there’s only so much courage in a bubble. My students write and share with me and their peers, but for me, who can be my peer to give me feedback? There’s not as much to risk if I don’t practice what I ask my students to do: to write broadly and brazenly; to work on an idea through iteration and revision; to share their work and put it into the world for others to comment, correct, and question.

So when I saw Chris Lehman was hosting an online workshop for #TeacherPoets, I was filled with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. What a great way to renew my writing spirit and push my boundaries with real peer feedback!

It’s not enough to read and write as preparation for my classes. If I want to be an effective teacher, I have to be an authentic practitioner of my art.

Consider joining the Teacher Poets community on Google+ or form a writing community of your own around a kitchen table. Practice your practice and grow your voice.

Oh, and here’s my practice–to be added to the Poetry section of the blog:

“Tenderness”

(for my grandparents, the greatest love story I know)

she was receding
the ocean’s depth of her memory
evaporating like steam
Alzheimer’s
hid her crossword puzzles
lost her crochet hooks
stripped her photo albums
ravaged her appetite

when she left a roast smoking in the oven
he cut off the gas for good
took her to the Ponderosa buffet

she clung to his arm
their independence
as unsteady as his shuffling gait
he led her gently to a booth
then made his way to the
salad bar

breathing hard from the effort
legs numb from neuropathy
he leaned against the soup stand
dipped a ladle into the brine
fished for carrots until he had filled a plate
with soft orange slices
tender enough for her to eat
with ill-fitting false teeth

sighing, he sat and reached across the table
her frightened, clouded eyes seemed to clear
and for a moment
this pair, alone in the restaurant
in dirty clothes and unwashed hair
held the universe
in their hands

 

In Defense of Poetry

My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.

For the most part.

What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.

Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)

Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s “for girls not boys.” The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand, right? In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.

The Standards say:

  • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
  • Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.

I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.

We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.

Like this:

only In–

our dreams             when the world is wish-

magnificent the things

we wish were reality

 

fly high      and        free

 

and the princeandprincess live

happily ever after and

do the unimaginable

but we’re dreaming

 

when the world is journey-magnificent

 

the plans we’ve

held captive inside us escape

then come to be

and we hopeandpray to never wake up

 

from imagination and perfection

 

we’re

dreaming

and

                    the

                                     frightening

things real life holds make us

wish

we

weren’t

 

Or this:

Grade 7–

 

a Time where everything is Group–Separate

nerds and JOCKS as well as

those who are world–unaware

 

the crude Talk in the

room–

the Alliances and Enemies

 

the Numbers and the TEACHERS–

 

a Place that is experiment–fearful

the Whispering

                     the Giggling

                                          the “Secrets”

to think it is all bricks

caging the Mayhem–

even the labyrinth

has never been so twisted–

 

everyone has to but

eventually will

                                                forget

a place where the odds may be ever in your favor

Or this:

in Science–

where everything is lecture-boring

and the science man

goes on

and  on

and

on

sapping every bit of interest    out

 

when life around you is snail   –   speed

the distant mumble of speech

droning on — forever

endless

meaningless

 

a standardized test

the monotonous article

that puts you to sleep

at a single glance

 

everpresent is the interest

lurking

creeping on the edge of existence

living in a deep   dark slumber

searching for a time to awaken

 

but that time

has yet to come

I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.

Search Out the Enemy

There are times I have to take a break: turn off the 24/7 “news,” skip social media debates, and breathe fresh air. On dark days, it seems there are conspiracies brewing all around us. We have a culture of distrust that assumes someone out there with wealth and power is always pulling a fast one, somehow knowing exactly how the future will unfold according to their plans. “They” sit behind polished desks and plot the destruction of everything fair and just. “They” have a master plan that can only be thwarted with careful vigilance and protest–and maybe a superhero or two. If we’re lucky, maybe we will get to witness it all in its three-act glory full of explosions and beautiful people on the big screen.

Count, if you can, the number of films in the last five years that have revolved around this world view.

I fell into this trap as a teenager. I attended a Catholic high school with declining enrollment in an aging building. In the middle of my freshman year, we were told that the school would cease to operate. Conspiracy theories abounded. It must have been the neighboring businesses who wanted to raze our building and take the real estate in a land-grab. How could “they” do this to us? Didn’t “they” know how this selfish destruction was hurting us? We protested, rallied, and spoke darkly of those villains, the mysterious “they” who must have had a plan. In reality, the funding necessary to pay the bills simply did not exist. Our school had operated on a shoestring budget for too long and our financial reality was unavoidable. In our case there was a happy ending–with wide community support and thoughtful, long-term financial planning–but the narrative of villain-victim-hero still pervades too many stories we tell ourselves about the way the world works.

This poisonous fictionalization of reality can rip us apart. Once we fall into the trap of the villain-victim-hero, it can become impossible to make any rational, realistic change or progress. We pit teachers vs administrators, students vs teachers, taxpayer vs school system. Suddenly it becomes easy to spot malice or incompetence everywhere.

Does it make any rational sense to believe that an individual or group actively pursues the destruction of what we value? Yes, individual human beings can be selfish, myopic, and make poor decisions, but they can also be broad-minded, thoughtful, and creative, too. The whole purpose of democracy is to distribute the decision-making as broadly as possible so that multiple perspectives can be considered, pulling us together instead of driving us apart. When we see the process as fiction with villains who must be defeated by the forces of good, we stop listening and see any sign of compromise as a failure. When we assume the worst and leap to conclusions, we can fool ourselves into thinking that anything we don’t like must be the “fault” of an “enemy”–someone who isn’t like us and deserves to be cut off from “real” believers or citizens or patriots–someone who must be punished or “held accountable.”

This happens nationally when we demonize Common Core standards or teacher unions–not that there shouldn’t be discussion or debate–but to filter the people involved through the lens of villain/victim/hero means that we miss too much of the truth. Public schools are woven into the fabric of society, not separate from it. The schools belong to the community and are a vital part of it. When we compartmentalize, demonize, and shift into the worn old narrative, we miss so many opportunities to hear one another clearly and make real, lasting improvement.

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I feel an obligation to my students to share stories of many different kinds, to awaken empathy and broaden their perception of protagonists, antagonists, and conflict. I worry about the impact our cultural drumbeat has on my students who are awash in a world populated with the narrative of villains, victims, and heroes. How will they see themselves and their fellow citizens as the narratives warp and shift around them?

When we go looking for an enemy, we will always find someone to blame and remain locked in a trap of our own construction.

Always a Teacher

One of the many double-edged swords with the teacher personality is that for many of us, what we do is who we are. We are always “switched on” and collecting ideas, images, songs, quotes, strategies, tools–anything that may be of use to us and our students. I know each time I talk with a student about his or her future, concerns, or joys, my words and opinion have weight. There is never a moment when what I say or do doesn’t matter to those entrusted to my care. That means that on the bad days, I have to keep a lot back, put professionalism first, and focus on the role.

In the middle of this month, I started noticing a change in the way my body was feeling. My pulse pounded, I grew faint and short of breath from standing in one place. My usual Tigger-like bounce and sparkle teaching delivery took so much out of me that I had to lay down in the nurse’s office during my prep, and even that would not be enough to see me through a day. My health started to deteriorate and no amount of muscle was going to be enough to keep me on my feet. It is with a heavy heart that I am taking a leave of absence to focus on my health and to treat the illness that has suddenly invaded my life.

I miss my students and I feel such an obligation to them. Even as I struggle with questions that have no answers for me now, I keep thinking of them and what they need to learn.

One of my colleagues reminded me that whether I am in my classroom or not, I am still teaching my students. Right now, that lesson happens to be how to live with illness with courage and self-care. I can teach them compassion and patience as I stay focused on recovery. I can teach them honesty and determination each time I respond to a gentle email question, “When are you coming back?” I will teach them professionalism and responsibility as someone stands in my place to teach my lessons as I guide them from a distance, always looking over their shoulders, never forgetting the learning that is happening whether I am there physically or not. Most of all, I can teach them independence–that they are the only ones who can take control of their learning, that my most proper role is as a coach and guide.

I am always a teacher, learning now to teach all kinds of ways.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)

The Camp Director Files: Lessons in Administration

"The calm before the campers." Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011.

The majority of my experience and background in education has been in English or Language Arts classrooms, teaching middle and high school students. As I’ve developed more confidence, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to grow in other directions and take on leadership roles on school committees or as a coach or teacher leader. As a theater director, I learned how to manage a budget and balance schedules in order to bring my shared vision to life on the stage with my students. I created new structures and developed a team to build some institutional memory for the program that wouldn’t be forgotten when I had to move away. All these experiences allowed me to work side by side with students or colleagues and act as a sounding board to help them reach their goals. In all my experiences, I’ve been a team member or my leadership centered on an area of my expertise. This summer, I am facing a new challenge in uncharted territory: administration. Not only am I taking on a new role, I’m also helping to reshape and reimagine an existing program to help leave it stronger and more organized with a fresh vision for the future.

I’m learning how to handle the pressure of too much to do and too few hands to do the work; how to delegate and how to show my staff I trust them to do what’s best for kids; how to follow policy set for me from an ideal standpoint that doesn’t match the messy and unpredictable nature of reality on site; how to train my staff and work with my Assistant Director to mentor the junior counselors and CITs as they struggle to become leaders; how to manage tears, illness, homesickness, conflicts, misbehavior, and concerns for our campers’ safety and welfare at home; how to manage misunderstandings and personality conflicts among my leadership team; how to adhere to all the state regulations and requirements–even when that means letting kids go hungry at lunch because the food didn’t arrive at a safe-to-serve temperature–and explaining that to the kids so that they understand. In short, I’m getting a crash course in administration and a six-week internship as a mini-principal.

It has been daunting, uplifting, challenging, and fulfilling–and that was just for the first week of training before the campers showed up.

I plan to reflect on my experiences and list the links to those reflections from this starting point in order to document my journey. Comments and your wisdom are most welcome.

Let the journey begin:

1. The Other Side of the Office Door

2. Air Traffic Control or the Lighthouse

Armadillos

He had the frightened look of a trapped animal–a bullied runt who was used to abuse at the hands of cruel classmates. As we talked he ducked his head lower, turned away from me, and seemed to fold in on himself along the midline–as though he could pull his left and right shoulders together to shield his body from my questions or curl himself into a protective ball.

Armadillo

Image courtesy of Rich Anderson on Flickr

I was not his usual tutor and had not been able to build any kind of trust with him since he had joined our after school program. From the first time we met, this young man showed me only defiance and passive-aggressive behavior. I started our work time together as every session usually starts. We checked his online grade book to look for missing work or plan for upcoming assignments. As we flipped through the pages, some classes only had a few grades posted for the midterm progress report. I praised him for having no missing work in most of his classes, but then I saw his English class. There were only four grades for the first part of the quarter. Two were homework grades. One was a quiz. The other was a test. Each assignment was worth 100 points. Unfortunately for this student, both homework assignments earned 0 points. Shaking my head in disbelief that four grades were enough to determine how this student was learning, I asked him what he knew about the zero grades. Did he forget to turn in an assignment or was there something incomplete or incorrect? Did he want me to come with him to ask his teacher if he needed to reattempt something with me–his tutor?

No.

And then the walls went flying up in every direction. No, he didn’t want to speak to his teacher. No, he didn’t want to explain the assignments to me. No, he really wasn’t interested in finding out what he needed to do to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. No. No. No.

A frightened Brazillian Armadillo

Frightened Brazilian Armadillo, image courtesy of mtsofan on Flickr

In the classroom, this kind of defiance used to set off my blood pressure, but here in the tutoring lab things felt different. I saw him take this defensive stance out of self-preservation. What was at the root of it? Shame? Embarrassment? Fear? I had no way to know, so I sat beside him. I waited. I spoke softly and soothingly. And then I listened.

He told me about his third grade teacher. In his words: a jerk who didn’t help him understand, so he quit trying to understand Language Arts from then on. He would rely on summer school for the credit he needed to reach seventh grade. And eighth grade. And so on.

He told me about being bullied on the bus and at home, about learning the only way to solve a problem with someone else is to use force, and about hating school because it was boring.

This boy is one of many armadillos I’ve seen in my classroom over the years who show their tough exterior as a way to shield themselves from pain, hurt, or betrayal. I wish I could say we had a breakthrough, that he opened up just a tiny bit and trusted me to help him confront his fear or shame or whatever it was that was making him so upset, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I wondered what happens to some children as they pass through school from year to year that leaves them so damaged and afraid of adults.

How I Became a Twit(ter-er)

As little as six months ago, that’s how I referred to people on Twitter: twits.

When Lindsay Lohan, Snooki, and Lady Gaga have Twitter accounts and their every move is big news on Access Hollywood, that’s not something that gets me too excited. I don’t want to keep up with celebrity gossip and Facebook already kept me in touch with family, friends, and coworkers. I didn’t see the need for one more digital plate to spin, another digital identity or virtual self I’d have to maintain like a self-cloning Neopet.  But here I am, an enthusiastic proponent of social media in education. I consider myself to be open minded about technology and social media, but I am a late-bloomer when it comes to blogging and Twitter.

During an Edutopia tweetup while I was in San Francisco for the annual ASCD conference, I met Steve Anderson (aka @web20classroom) whom I had first “met” through #edchat. I’m definitely a newcomer (about 3 months) and he asked me point blank: Why? What was it that enticed me to start tweeting? What happened between month 4 and month 3? His questions made me pause. The change had happened so gradually, I hadn’t really paid attention. Around the same time, another educator I follow on Twitter, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a link from his blog, “Why Educators Should be Using Twitter.” Somewhere down in the comments, a person wrote a scathing post condemning social media and calling into question the motives one might have for participating in social media. After both of these experiences, I decided to give some serious thought to my transition, to share my reasons for joining the Twitter bandwagon, and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that may play a role in shaping the attitudes of educators, administrators, and parents who haven’t been drawn in to the social media community just yet. This isn’t a “you-should-join-’cause-Twitter-is-so-awesome” blog post. There are plenty of those around.

This is my story and I think others may see themselves in my experience.

In the Beginning

If I’m honest, my Twitter journey started about two years ago. I’d already created a Facebook account and made peace with the privacy/oversharing demons. I liked sharing interesting articles I read with my Facebook friends, but my posts usually didn’t generate any conversation or feedback. I wondered if maybe I was just annoying people. I read something in one of the blogs in my RSS feed that linked to a tweet. I wanted to read more.  Being an adventurous person, I thought I’d see what Twitter was all about. I made an account, looked for a few famous people, read disjointed conversations, and felt utterly bored and confused.

You could say I found Twitter to be confusing and overwhelming at first.

WTH was up w/@thisandthat #Blahblahblah RT #BeiberFever? What’s a bit.ly? So many acronyms and symbols! What did it all mean?

For once I felt out of my element with technology. These “twits” were speaking a different language and I didn’t belong with the cool kids speaking their secret code. I had no followers, except for AT&T who assigned someone to follow me after I complained about cell phone reception in my neighborhood. (Gee, didn’t I feel special.) I’m a huge fan of jazz musician Jamie Cullum so it was a natural choice to follow his tweets and get information about upcoming tour dates. I didn’t know anyone personally who used Twitter, so friends and family were off my list. I didn’t really want to use Twitter with friends and family, though. I had Facebook for that and I felt safer using Facebook to limit my contacts and guard my identity. After a day or two, I put a privacy fence around my tweets and promptly forgot my password.

Looking for a Place to Belong

In the second half of 2010, I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, severing myself from the only professional community I had known. I missed the teacher-leader and agent-of-change conversations I’d had in graduate school and my school’s program to develop teacher-coaches. I knew there had to be others out there who felt the way I did and could challenge me or teach me and help me stay sharp. I polished up my digital resume and joined Linked In. I wanted more professional conversation and hoped Linked In would be the place where I would find it. I attempted to contribute to professional conversations in the many available groups, but often days or weeks would go by without anyone saying anything–or I would simply be redirected to a magic-bullet educational product for sale. ASCDEdge proved equally limiting, but at least there were plenty of thought-provoking blog posts for me to browse.

NaNoWriMo and Blogging: Getting Warmer

In November I participated in my first NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The moderator encouraged participants like me to follow NaNoWriMo’s word sprints on Twitter. It felt nice to be connected to a group of writers who were all working hard on their writing like me, but the word sprints were broadcast posts. They didn’t invite conversation, they were commands. At this point, my impression of Twitter was like a platform in the mall where anyone could step up on a box and shout an announcement into the room. I read the tweets but didn’t post any replies.

At the same time I was working on my book, I started thinking about writing a blog. There had been so much conversation in the news about education and reform. I was sick to death of teacher cliches and misinformation and wanted to do something about it. I decided to start a blog (now defunct) based on a daily Google search using the term “teachers should.” I used a pseudonym and posted three times before I gave up. Who was I to write such self-serving fluff? Who would want to read it? Why did I care so much? I’d already tried (and failed) to have these types of conversations on Facebook and Linked In, so what was left?

I shifted tactics and started creating a personal website that would be a companion to my Linked In profile. I was dabbling more, playing with technology and Web 2.0 tools. I started looking for advice and test-driving different options for blogs. Before long I had “discovered” social bookmarking and was working up quite a list of useful classroom tools. That’s when I came across Edublogger, Richard Byrne (@rmbyrne), and Pernille Ripp (@4thGrdTeach). I subscribed to their blogs and started down the rabbit hole. The more I read, the more links I followed, the more blogs I added to the RSS reader. It was exactly what I had been looking for–smart people, great ideas, and a chance for me to learn something new. I dusted off my Twitter account, changed my handle, and added a picture.

I started seeing tips for educators to “follow” and before long I stumbled across Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) and my first #edchat. Before adding the hashtag, I had been tweeting into the ether. I knew what I was thinking, but I wasn’t part of the conversation. I watched the #edchat tweets roll in, saw the same names and faces sharing, questioning, linking, RT-ing (whatever THAT was). The mystifying code began to give way and I started following the conversation. I lurked for a while and decided to formally attend the next scheduled discussion. I stopped broadcasting and started engaging others in conversation. That decision has made all the difference.

In the last three months, because of the men and women I have met through Twitter I have:

  1. Started this blog.
  2. Commented on blogs to extend conversation.
  3. Challenged my philosophy of education.
  4. Participated in a webcast.
  5. Attended an #ntcamp as a virtual participant. Many thanks to Burlington High School’s principal, Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) for the Ustream window into learning. (Who knew backchannel tweeting and collaborating on a Google Doc would rank as one of the most valuable professional development moments in my career thus far?)
  6. Attempted Voicethread, Voki, Diigo, Evernote, Skype, and Prezi (among others).
  7. Engaged thoughtful people in conversation across disciplines, age groups, and backgrounds. (@lookforsun and @delta_dc)
  8. Been humbled to have my ideas shared and discussed.
  9. Connected to thinkers and writers I admire.
  10. Actively participated in shaping my professional footprint.

It’s not a stretch to say that Twitter has been my “gateway drug” to new educational technologies and ideas. It has forced me to define my professional beliefs and encouraged me to be part of a community of thinkers, writers, and innovators. (I’m glad they let me hang out–and I’m proud to be a Twit.)

Thanks again to Steve Anderson (@web20classroom) for challenging me to reflect and to Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) who encouraged me to write.

Why Gymnasts and Flipped-Class Teachers Need a Spotter

The flipped-class method, sometimes referred to as the “Fisch flip” (or reverse instruction), is a way to reorder the elements involved in teaching class material. In theory, students view a vodcast lecture or presentation screencast at home and the next day in class the student will practice or apply what was taught the night before. The flip refers to the swap between traditional uses of class time (lecture) and homework.

"Jake" image courtesy of xac on Flickr.

There are many reasons why this flip works for students and teachers among them:

  1. Unlike live lecture, students can pause, rewind, or review the recorded content any time in class or on their own.
  2. Teachers can ensure all sections of all courses hear the same explanations. No more worries about class interruptions for fire drills, assemblies cutting class short, teacher or student sick days–the content remains the same.
  3. In a mastery environment, students can work ahead or take more time. Learning becomes self-paced instead of teacher-paced.
  4. Teachers and students take advantage of class time for experimentation, exploration, practice, and clarification.

I don’t doubt the benefits for many teachers and students, but I am concerned about how reversed instruction may be applied. Planning for and creating vodcasts or screencasts requires a certain amount of technical skill along with presentation skills. Enthusiasm for the flip is not enough without understanding what makes it work well.

Gymnasts and Their Spotters

In order to learn and develop the strength, flexibility and muscle memory necessary to execute backflips, handsprings, and other tumbling, a gymnast requires dedicated, focused practice. In order to learn effectively, gymnasts begin with a spotter who can help them develop their skill as they learn a new technique. Spotters are experienced guides who don’t take control away from the gymnast, but provide the support necessary to ensure the gymnast’s safety, encourage proper form, and prevent injury. Just because a child is naturally athletic and taught herself how to do a back handspring in the backyard doesn’t mean she’s ready to complete a series of back handsprings down a balance beam in competition.

Spotting the Flipped Class Teacher

In education, we’re fond of throwing around terms for educational practices and we expect when we use these terms that everyone knows what we mean by them: formative assessment, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, the flipped classroom. In practice, misunderstandings and misapplication of methods that work well in the cutting-edge classrooms lead some late adopters and critics to decry these methods because they’ve missed what’s under the hood. It’s easy to read blog posts and Twitter testimonials and get excited (or critical) about a new method but without understanding how it ought to be applied. For example, my first flipped class experience was for an online Masters degree course. The lecture consisted of a cram-packed PowerPoint presentation and a muffled audio recording of the professor reading the slide information while occasionally interjecting additional points that weren’t already on the slides. It was difficult to pay attention to the recording because I could read the content faster than it could be read to me. Just because the lecture and notes were pre-recorded didn’t mean this was a successful flip. It was an attempt, and like a gymnast who falls and fails to complete a tumbling pass, my instructor needed coaching and practice. In other words: what if my professor had a spotter to help him refine his presentation or give him feedback?

Innovation and trying something new are key elements to keeping education vital and helping students meet 21st Century Learning outcomes. In the process, though, it’s important to remember we don’t have to do it alone–and we’re better for it. Before I embark on a flipped-class venture, I plan to seek out my own spotters and coaches to help me avoid making mistakes that will impair learning in my classroom. What are some of these mistakes that need spotting?

  1. Creating presentations that allow students to merely watch passively.
  2. Replicating textbook content and replacing reading with viewing.
  3. Ignoring issues of recording quality and clarity.
  4. Conflating pizazz and technical showmanship with instruction.
  5. Expecting too little of my students.

QCK Coaches Code of Conduct image courtesy of Rick McCharles on Flickr

For more information and examples of a flipped classroom in action, visit the Flipped Class Blog by flipped class innovators Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron  Sams or ask questions using the #flipclass hashtag on Twitter.