What if….

students engage in conversation about the course material as they are entering the room?

students tell me why they were learning what they were learning instead of the other way around?

students are comfortable AND awake during the class time?

students check the clock hoping for more time, not less in my classroom?

students read different things, share their insights, learn from each other, and teach me?

students do work outside of the classroom because they want to learn more?

students engage experts beyond the classroom to test their ideas and stretch their thinking?

students share their gained knowledge and ideas with others in service of problem solving or furthering understanding?

students set their own learning goals and evaluate how well they are reaching them?

students share what they find that might help others in their work, while pursuing their own research on a regular basis?

students exceed, instead of meet my expectations?

we all leave the classroom with more energy than when we enter?

we build reflecting time into our routine, so we spend as much time thinking about information as gathering it?

this is actually attainable?

I have been thinking about what my ideal classroom would be like, and this is where my thinking is now. It really comes down to one fundamental goal – creating a community of learners, teachers, scholars, citizens.

Here are my plans for making this happen in my senior elective on Modern Asia. The first day will be one of inquiry where students will crowdsource what they know about China and India, generate questions about what they want to know, and start to work on ways they might be able to begin to answer their questions.

For the first unit on China, I am letting the students choose among three books to read. I am hoping that they will make different choices and be able to help share insights, even passages from the books with each other. I want to avoid the dynamic at first where everyone is reading the same thing and the discussion is rather narrow, other than the occasional interpretive disagreement.

Projects will be of their own choosing and development, and I will expect them to articulate goals and progress. One component of their work will be to identify outside experts and try to engage them in conversation about the research. The individual projects will be open to any topic related to Asia in the 20th or 21st century, which is not part of the core work of the course.

Blogging, on class and individual blogs will be a regular expectation. All written work will be public – they will not submit any assignments that only I will read. The class blog will be a space where they can share articles and comment on articles posted by others. Individual blogs will be more about process and reflection.

My classroom has a few comfy areas where I will encourage students to sit if they want to avoid the traditional tables and chairs. I do not have enough comfy seating yet, but maybe as the year progresses, I can get more.

Everything else on the list will have to come from the students. I hope that I will create the right environment for them to thrive and grow, but I cannot do it all. I can set the tone and the example and if I am right about the kind of class they want to be in, they will follow. To be continued…



The Problem with Lurking

Some people get into the pool slowly, inching in bit by bit while others jump in doing a cannonball. In the end both make it into the water to swim. The key to swimming is getting in the water. It does not matter how you do it. Getting out of the water is a different matter. It can be cold and uncomfortable at first. Then you can get used to being out and not want to go through the discomfort of getting in again. Yes – I have spent a fair amount of time at the pool this summer, but I think the metaphor works.

For a variety of reasons, I have spent much of this summer on the side of my PLN pool. I have missed far more #sschats than I have made. I have checked my Twitter feed less regularly. I have sent more links to Evernote with the promise that I will read and sift later. I have been reading the #sschat summer book, but I have not contributed to the discussion. I feel like I am on the side of the pool watching everyone else swim and splash. In essence, I have been doing more lurking than participating.

It is easy to feel like everyone else has so much to offer while sitting on the sidelines. I have come to realize that is it only by interacting with others on Twitter and through commenting on their blogs that I can feel confident and connected. I am missing the conversation, asynchronous and synchronous. I have taken a step back from Web 2.0 to at least 1.5 and sometimes 1.0. It can be very intimidating, and it is definitely much less satisfying. It takes time and effort to cultivate and maintain a PLN, but the alternative is not acceptable to me anymore.

So, for me the problem with lurking comes when participation stops there. I can still get some resources, and some great ideas, but the confidence and the growth really comes from engaging in conversation with others about their ideas, including contributing my own. I spent last spring and summer getting in the pool, but then I got out. It is time to jump back in.

From the Blueberry Patch – Thoughts on Berry Picking and Maybe Teaching, too

It was a quiet morning in the blueberry patch at the Pick-Your-Own farm nearby. As my sister and I were picking in separate areas of the patch, and the birds were chirping away, I thought about what I was doing and how I was doing it. Here are my lessons from blueberry picking.

1. Take a minute to survey the field and then just jump in. You could stare at the bushes forever looking for the best area to begin, with the most ripe berries.

2. The berries that are ripe should come off the bush pretty easily. If you have to pull too hard on a berry, it is probably not ready.

3. The next bush over may or may not be better than the one you are working on – sometimes it is just the angle of view.

4. Look inside the bush and down low near the ground to find the berries others have missed.

5. Keep changing your perspective by shifting a bit to the left and right. The best way to see the most berries is to view the bush from different perspectives.

6. Do not always trust the experts. The bushes they direct you to may be the best for picking, but their information may not be the most up to date. Do not be afraid to check other areas for yourself. Berries ripen at different rates, with new ones ripening each day. It is hard to stay on top of the situation.

7. Try to check the whole berry – sometimes the outside is ripe but underneath is still red.

8. Know that you will drop some and pick some that are not perfectly ripe. Nobody is perfect. Make muffins with the less ripe and let the birds have the ones that you cannot find.

9. Some days are just better than others, but if you leave with a bucket of fresh picked berries, it is worth it.

10. Time to reflect is a wonderful gift. Take it where you can get it.

In thinking about blueberry picking, it occurred to me that it was not a bad metaphor for teaching.  So many things circle back to teaching and learning. I feel so fortunate to have made it my work to be part of something so essential.

Inspired Developments

Finding a work that is inspiring creates a snowball effect, which is especially welcome in the middle of a hot summer. It leads me to dream big about my classes. I begin to envision the classroom as a place of excitement, innovation, and learning, a place buzzing with ideas. Most of all I am open to seeing the possibilities with a “we can figure it out” attitude.

This summer the book that has brought me out of my doldrums and jump-started my imagination again is Now You See It by Cathy Davidson. Here are a few of my takeaways.

For my core courses in US and World History, plans in the works include using gaming as an inspiration for project based learning, incorporating mastery on different levels and individual pacing. Foremost in my mind will be keeping the work challenging enough to keep kids trying, but not so hard that they want to give up. I had already been working on some of these ideas, but now I have added energy and momentum for the task.

My senior elective on Modern Asia is focused on understanding the region today, especially China and India. For the most part we focus on the history from 1945 forward. I truly believe that the students should understand other countries and cultures, but Davidson’s book gave me a concrete rationale. Many of my students may very well be working with people from around the world in the future, with technology erasing geographic barriers. Having knowledge of other cultures is essential.

With this in mind, I am planning to have the class create a single class project – a publication online that is designed to educate their peers who did not take the course about the recent history and current situations of the major Asian countries. I see the students working in fluid groups, throughout the semester. Along the way, each will conduct research, and they will do some common readings to create a base of knowledge. They will work together to hash out the planning of the publication. Some classes will consist of shared experiences, like videos or discussions, while other classes will be devoted to independent or small group work. We will have a class Symbaloo where links can be collected. There will be a class blog, but there may also be students who wish to create individual blogs as well. All will be linked to the Symbaloo.

My greatest moments last year were when students brought in their personal research to shed some light on the work someone else was doing, or when a student would ask an intriguing question that would set us on a collective search for an answer. That was when we lost track of time, and the bell was an unwelcome interruption. A key lesson I learned from last year’s senior class was that both autonomy and timely feedback are necessary. It is better if they set their individual goals and deadlines, and it is important that I ask them to reflect on how they are doing. I also need to be in regular conversation with each student about his or her work.

I was struck by Davidson’s discussion about the blurring between work and home, work and play, with fewer boundaries in place thanks to our wired world. It seems to me that has been true of teachers and students forever. The rest of the world is now working more like we do. To me that does not justify endless amounts of homework, but it does indicate that in the “real world” our students are just as likely to take work home or even work from home as not. Homework does need to be meaningful and should be engaging, as much as possible, though, as we would hope our students’ careers will be. Instilling the work ethic necessary to be self-directed seems more important than ever.

While I am not really sure if there is a direct connection with the book, the result of my renewed energy has been to buy more comfortable furniture for my classroom, and continue to make that space over to be a more inviting and friendly space where students will do the meaningful and engaging work I envision. I am prepared that the reality may not live up to my imagination, but who knows. It just might.