Catch phrases – Lessons from EdCamp

Everyone has his or her own take on Edcamps. I got great ideas to implement in the classroom and in my professional work. I really liked meeting and talking with everyone who attended. I value the different perspectives everyone brought.

But quite possibly the most enduring lessons I am taking from Saturday’s EdCamp SS in Philadelphia can be summed up in a few sentences uttered by others in attendance. Brad Campbell was talking about flipping his classroom, and he said something that really resonated with me. To paraphrase, he said we need to get out of our students’ way but still be present for them. Students responded more positively to the videos when he made them because they needed that connection with him. In another session about Evernote (which I will definitely begin using) Greg Kulowiec said we need to start with the why and not the how – he was talking about teachers, but I think the same applies to students.  If I cannot articulate a reason for why I am asking them to do something, I need to reconsider. I would add another one I heard but not for the first time on Saturday – Shawn McCusker’s adage to go where you grow. That has been in my mind guiding me for a while now.

So, while I got great ideas for activities in the classroom and food for thought about how to organize my curriculum, I think what I value the most are the phrases and sentences that echo in my head to guide me in whatever I do. I guess that is just how my mind works. After all, what I remember from 10th grade Biology is that there is no such thing as a free lunch, which was my teacher’s interpretation of one of the laws of thermodynamics. And related to evolution, when the going gets tough, the tough get sexy. Interesting that I remember Mr. Wright’s catch phrases, but pretty much nothing about my history classes.

Spring Break, Travel Lit, and Convergence

Saturday afternoon I browsed the new non-fiction books at my local public library and came across I Married a Travel Junkie by Samuel Jay Keyser. Seemed like the perfect Spring Break staycation book, since I am a travel lit junkie. As I enjoyed traveling vicariously with the author and his wife to all sorts of exotic locales and experienced second-hand some amazing adventures, I came across a concept put forth by Keyser that stuck with me – some people are process-oriented (travel junkie) and enjoy the journey while other people are goal-oriented (the author) and just want to reach the destination.

Midway through Spring Break, as I try to balance my reading time, I can see things coming together in interesting ways. In response to some frustration I was experiencing in the classroom, one of my colleagues with whom I regularly connect on Twitter, Bill Chapman, pointed me in the direction of a book by Bruce Lesh, Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers? (Come to find out Lesh happens to teach at one of my local public schools).  As I have been reading the book, it occurred to me that what Lesh is really talking about is the process of historical investigation rather than the goal of the answer. This makes perfect sense and lines up with a great piece Bill wrote about the right process v. the right answer.

I wonder if it is as important to know whether our students are process-oriented or goal-oriented as it is to know whether they are visual, kinesthetic or aural learners. We can blame past history classes for rewarding them for answers rather than process or the system that emphasizes a final grade, but part of the challenge may be dispositional as well. If that is the case, we need to be prepared for putting students in a place that they may never quite embrace. We have to articulate the importance of process, acknowledge their discomfort and take them along on the trip anyway knowing, like Keyser, that it is better than being left behind.

My Students’ Shoes

I asked my students to write about how they define success for their research projects in my Modern Middle East class. Before I read through the answers, I thought I should answer the question myself about the course. This is a new class for me to teach, and I am implementing some new techniques. There is no single due date for the project – it will be done when my students believe it is. I am allowing students to blog process rather than create a final summative piece. I am putting together readings rather than using a book. Current events and student interest is driving the curriculum. I began the course knowing I wanted to start by looking at Syria and Egypt, but after that we have been creating the curriculum as we go. In this week before Spring Break, I am allowing students get some traction by working on their projects.

I will consider this class a success if the seniors stay with me until the end. I am tailoring my out of class expectations to account for some senioritis in the fourth quarter. I am expecting that all of my students will be able to talk to me about current events; they will have enough context to understand the issues and know how to find out more. Some students have noted that their own visions of success depend to some extent on other people, such as reading and following their blogs. The same holds true for me. My feeling of success depends on my students. If they achieve the goals they have set for themselves, I will feel like my class has been successful. If we all achieve what we want from this course, that will be an amazing feeling.

After finishing the above thoughts I went to read through what my students posted as their goals. I was really impressed with the thought that they put into the assignment. Some expressed rather vague goals, but now I have the opportunity to provide feedback to try to get them focused. A few students cited educating their peers about their topic as a goal. One girl will measure success by how well she can organize and execute a presentation to the class. Some of the bloggers believe followers and comments to be signs of success, but acknowledged they have little control over that. All of the students strive for a deep understanding of their topic in general, but some went further to try to know what that would look like. One student wanted to read new material and be able to form his own opinion based on his knowledge of the issues. Another noted that she would be done when she hit the point that her research began to repeat. One student noted that her project could never be done – it something that is ongoing. I told them they would need to measure themselves against their own standards, as well as mine.

I am glad I asked the question – of my students and myself. If you are interested, here is the link to the class symbaloo, which includes links to the student blogs for the class at the center of the top.

What can 2.0 do?

I generally relate my posts to my teaching, but today I am only writing as a learner. I am reading Wael Ghonim’s book Revolution 2.0, and it is leading me to think about the role of social media for social activism. There is a tremendous power to communities that form on Facebook and news that spreads through Twitter, but there are also limits. For all of the new ways that ideas are spread, it still comes down to the face to face interactions.

Facebook groups can plan events, share ideas and create a sense of community. Twitter can spread information quickly to a global audience, as well as to local people. Still, for all of the electronic planning that took place in Egypt, it was still a matter of people taking to the streets. For countries where internet access is not universal, messages need to be spread with printed pamphlets and word of mouth. All of the cyber outrage in the world does not matter unless it moves people to take an active role. I was surprised how uncertain it was in Egypt that people would actually turn out for the protests, despite the support online.Clicking the like button on Facebook is not the same as staring down the well-armed security forces.

This is new territory, for all of us. We have seen cases in Tunisia and Egypt where social media seem to have been used to effect change. Will these cases be the beginning of a trend or historical anomaly? Is this a game of cat and mouse, where the powers that be will catch up and shut down the progressive forces where they are? If groups have significant but shallow support, will they know it before they try to mobilize and fail? I have no answers to these questions, but I wonder about them.

What Does Success Look Like?

This is the question I plan to ask my seniors tomorrow. They are doing individual or partner research projects on different aspects of the Middle East.  Several of them have chosen to blog their way through the research recording their process and findings. I want to know how they will know if they are successful with this project, aside from my evaluation of it. I want them to set some individual goals and think about what they need to accomplish. Then, they should be able to formulate a plan to get there. After they complete the project, before I weigh in on it, they will have to measure themselves up to their own standards.

There are many ways in life that we work to meet external standards, but the true meaning comes when we meet our own expectations. I will follow up with another post tomorrow after I get their reactions and responses.