Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

My past week has been filled with staff, teachers, counselors, administrators, and myself stepping outside of our Comfort Zones. We all know that when we stay in our Comfort Zone, we generally don't grow - we generally don't do anything amazing.

While I took a major leap outside my Comfort Zone this year in my new role, I have seen several others who have also ventured outside their Comfort Zones to try something new/different that is better for the students. Teachers are diving head first into the technology tools provided and exploring options to improve student learning. The secretaries are mastering the new Teacher Ease student management system, the lunch staff is owning and adapting the Teacher Ease lunch program to make it work for our district, and administrators and parents are exploring the instant notification features built in to the Teacher Ease system regarding student grades, discipline, attendance, and lunch balance.

Today I was bludgeoned with the Comfort Zone concept. In addition to working with a teacher who is committed to making some overhauls to the way the courses are taught and hearing about a teacher who is taking on the challenge of creating a course from online lessons combined with classroom activities, I also stumbled upon Tom Whitby's article "Comfortable Baby Steps?" As I began reflecting on how I have seen several people in the district step outside their Comfort Zones, the episode of Covert Affairs that I was watching with my wife was based on stepping outside your Comfort Zone for the greater good.

Part of my commitment to you was to also provide technology tools that will make it easier for you to succeed. This week I am promoting Trello. Even though I have been stepping outside my comfort zone, I needed something to keep me organized and grounded. Trello is a wonderful productivity tool that can be used by an individual or by a collaborative group to organize "to do" lists, assign tasks, check off completed tasks, and discuss options to complete tasks.

For the past two years I have been loosely using the free tool Trello with my yearbook staff to collaborate on tasks to meet publishing deadlines as well as with the teachers leading the global Flat Classroom project NetGenEd. In the past two weeks, I have been heavily relying on Trello as a daily "to do" list, a reminder of ongoing tasks, and completed tasks. I access Trello frequently using my iPhone and iPad, but may access it also from a web browser on my laptop or through the app in my android tablet. Last night I let my new yearbook staff know that we will use Trello as a collaborative tool to keep us on track in the production of the yearbook. My favorite side note of Trello is that you can sign up for it using your Google account or just use your email address to sign up. Today, I showed a colleague how I use Trello to stay on track so I make sure I prioritize tasks and complete all the tasks I need to complete.

While Trello is a cool productivity tool, there are others out there that have various appealing functions. Please add a comment about your favorite productivity tool. Stepping outside your Comfort Zone to improve student learning is awesome, and finding a productivity tool that helps maintain sanity is also essential.

One of the areas that I have forced myself to step outside of my Comfort Zone is the area of sharing. I, like many other educators, feel uncomfortable sharing my lessons, pedagogy, expertise, and favorite tools because I fear that I will be perceived as pompous or pretentious. However, since I have joined several global communities of educators, I have found that sharing my information is just as important to others as the information that I glean from them. I am amazed at the down-to-earth nature of the "famous" educators. We are all on the same team and have the same goal of doing what is best for our students. We appreciate tips from others, and they deserve to benefit from our expertise as well. In future posts I will discuss ways to share your expertise with your immediate colleagues as well as other educators.

What are you doing to step outside your Comfort Zone? What tools are you using to maintain or increase your productivity? Share in the comments below.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Taking on a New Role in Education

Each of the toughest decisions that I have had to make involved going outside of my comfort zone. My most recent decision has been not only a life changing decision, but a career changing decision. While my passion for being a teacher in the classroom has been the driving force in my life, I have taken on a new role in education - that of Instructional Technology Coordinator for Pleasant Plains schools. As school started this past week, I missed preparing my classroom, greeting students as they entered my classroom, and (quite honestly) having a classroom.

A lot of people have asked me why I decided on the role change, some hypothesizing that I didn't like teaching any more. On the contrary, I love teaching. I also want to make the biggest impact that I can make. As a 21st Century Educator, I continually strive for self-improvement. I continually strive to prepare students to be successful after high school. I can help the greatest number of students by helping other teachers to provide a 21st Century education. While I will not have a specific set of "my kids," I have realized that I am going to now share all of the teachers' students with them.

The next question that I typically get asked is "what does an Integration Technology Coordinator do?" Our district Technology Director, Mike Squires, will continue to maintain the network and take care of hardware needs. I will work with teachers and students to integrate technology into the lesson to improve student learning and understanding. I will be part of the support system that teachers need in order to be risk-takers in their classrooms, to try new technology tools with the understanding that they are not alone. I will team up with teachers to implement new ways of teaching that aligns with our students' ways of learning.

While part of my role is to team up with teachers, another part of my role is to team up with students. Students use various forms of technology to socialize, inform themselves, and learn outside of school. We need to find ways for students to continue these skills in their formal learning and to become responsible digital citizens - aware of the impression their posts make and pride in the reflection of themselves represented in their online work and personas.

I look forward to teaming up with teachers, students, parents, administrators, and the community to better prepare our students for the 21st Century.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Evolving Education

While it has been a while since I have collected my thoughts and reflected on the status of education in my classrooms, I saw some amazing things happening in my classroom this past year. As seen in my previous posts, I strive to prepare students for their post high school future by promoting 21st Century Skills and focusing on the Common Core Standards. Both of these stress the importance of technology integration, problem solving, critical thinking, and supporting thoughts and ideas.

English students have been entering the classroom, going straight to the laptops, opening the classroom website and beginning the classroom activities before the bell to begin class even rings. Some students even complete the introductory creative writing blog post earlier in the day because they got caught up in their previous classes. Students have progressed from using Blogger to post their classroom assignments to the learning management system (LMS), Canvas ( where they post literary analyses to discussion boards and reply to the posts of their peers and post literary analysis essays to Canvas for online review.

In a recent blog post, students reflected on the progress of their writing from the beginning of the year to their latest literary analysis, and their responses are enlightening:
"I can now elaborate my thoughts in a more detailed fashion, accurately portraying my ideas among the facts I gathered from whatever we were analyzing and the literary criticisms online. Thankfully, my writing in general - the actual sound of my sentences - has improved a lot more."
"I seem to have a system going on now that I never had before. I will go and find my sources first, then when I find something interesting, I add it to what I'm writing and it makes citing things much easier. I feel stupid for ever trying to do it any other way. I used to just babble and go find credible sources that were nearly always irrelevant to what I was saying. Its sad that I stressed myself so much over doing that before I learned that writing can actually be enjoyable."
"I feel as if I have grown as writer and have [exceeded] my expectations. I think that looking back is a good thing. Seeing improvements in oneself gives needed confidence and satisfactory in moving forward with harder and more detailed writings."
"I feel like my language in my more recent discussion posts has become more scholarly and concise than when I started out the year. . . . I also think that I have gotten much better at fitting my support into my posts more naturally, so that it doesn't disrupt the flow of my writing."
"I find myself putting all of my ideas down and being able to connect them all without making it choppy.  In past writings, I was a boring writer and I got bored coming up with ideas.  When I would put my ideas down in my blog, they were all mixed together and would leave things hanging.  I am glad that my writing has evolved and I hope it keeps on evolving."
"Now I use literary criticisms more, which uses the thoughts of experts. Since I am using the thoughts of experts, this supports what I am trying to say. This has really helped me improve my writing. I also think that I have gotten better at citing my sources than I used to be. I am much more comfortable with using parenthetical citations because I now have to use them in every single thing that I write about."
"I can now elaborate my thoughts in a more detailed fashion, accurately portraying my ideas among the facts I gathered from whatever we were analyzing and the literary criticisms online. Thankfully, my writing in general - the actual sound of my sentences - has improved a lot more."
"Overall I think I am a way better writer than I was at the beginning of the year. As much as I dislike writing these essays I believe that they have benefited me and improved my skills as a writer."
"After reading my reflection blog from back in September, I can definitely see improvement in my writing. At the beginning of the year, I kind of had an idea of how to write in this more formal style with support, but I still had much to learn. . . . It is encouraging to see how my writing has improved over the months and I hope to continue to do so."
"I do not just skim the surface of a topic, but I can now actually make arguments about poems, and essays that I was not previously able to do. My analyzing while reading skills have also gotten better too. I am more confident in understanding what I am reading now, then I was in the beginning of the year. All in all, I believe that I am a better writer, and that my skills will continue to improve."
"By looking back on my writing just a few months ago, I have realized just how much I have changed as a writer.  I think the biggest difference is that I can write a lot faster and good information seems easier to put into words.  I guess that a lot of practice can really make a big difference."
I, myself, used these student posts as a means of self-reflection. Instead of assuming that they "got it," I was reassured that they all recognized what they were accomplishing and respected the process that I guided them through to improve their writing. My reflections have also prompted me to assess the process and tools that I had used throughout the school year. Synchronous discussions in Today's Meet chat allowed everyone to have a simultaneous voice and led to amazing discussions. Discussion posts in Canvas led to incredible academic discussions worthy of collegiate study. Using Facts on File databases as a reference tool for students to incorporate as support for their ideas in their essays, led to improved scholarly writing and better expression of ideas.
While teachers typically assume that we are "doing it right," reflecting on the tools and pedagogy that we used in our lessons is just as important as reflecting on the multiple assessments that we give along the way. Teaching comes with successes and failures, and finding what works is an evolving process in itself. I have not taught the same way every year - while there are similarities, there is always something different about the pedagogy and/or tools used that fits better with the students in the classroom. Reflection is key to making the right decisions to make the educational process more successful for the students.