Tag Archive for blc08

Reflections on Building Learning Communities 2008


I made a full week of the Building Learning Communities conference this year. I started with EduBloggerCon East, an informal gathering of local educators and technologists to discuss tech issues on our mind. I spent Tuesday at The Met, the “unschool,” in which students learn through internships and independent study. The formal conference ran from Wednesday through Friday and included one keynote and several breakout sessions per day.

EduBloggerCon was a success. I am a big fan of participant-led events, which bring a level of authenticity and spontaneity often lacking from more carefully planned professional development. I took the group through a workshop to explicitly connect technology-rich activities with underpinning learning theories. I participated in a discussion of extending special education technologies to the entire school and a review of people’s favorite new tools (mine was NanoGong). I was disappointed by what I saw as overemphasis on tools and relatively weak discussion of pedagogy. Does this mean that educational technologists need to develop stronger dialogue around pedagogy? Yes. Can I better structure my workshops on this topic? Definitely. It may be time for me to narrow the discussion to constructivist teaching with technology rather than trying to cast a wide net over a number of pedagogical constructs.

I had a tremendous time at The Met. I had heard and read about their model for internship-based education — a school without classes or courses! However, this was my first direct experience speaking with teachers and students about the model and reviewing their planning and explanatory materials. Running for over a decade now, The Met staff has continued to deepen its understanding of what works and enrich the details of their program. I kept a series of notes on the a-ha moments of the day and hope to refer to them often in the future.

I am pleased that the Big Picture Company now boasts a network of 50 schools nationwide (and a few abroad) that have adopted their principles and model and participate in their network for professional development and planning materials. Given all of the talk about authentic learning environments, student interest in learning, and 21st century skills, this seems like one obvious direction to explore when considering new models for effective education. One of their schools is located in my backyard. I hope to pay a visit to expand my local professional network in Portland and see how the Big Picture model translates to one of their newer schools.

To tell you the truth, the first two BLC keynote addresses were disappointing. Ewan McIntosh and John Davitt focused too much on currently existing technology applications and their effects on social dynamics and power. The dominant educational technology discourse has been enamored with these possibilities for a few years now. We are ready for a more detailed exploration of the intersection of new technologies with specific pedagogical strategies. Give us lots of specific examples from schools — by now, they should exist, right? Explore both successes and failures. Teachers and school technologists have already bought into the vision. Now give us the tools and wisdom to implement well.

The third keynote exemplified a great address to 1,000 people. Ironically, Pedro Noguera did not talk at all about technology! His classic talk on the case and problem of school reform resonated well with much of the audience both at the conceptual and practical levels. Full of detailed examples and specific cases, Noguera interwove the conceptual and moral imperative for school change with many different views of each concept, data from research studies, and individual schools implementing specific strategies, to great success.

Interestingly, McIntosh scored a hit with me during his breakout session titled “We’re Adopting: One Year On.” I had read about his introduction of a large professional learning environment in East Lothian last year and was excited to get an update on the progress of the network one year along. Not only did McIntosh deliver the promised update, but he also revisited some of the concepts from the keynote in much more detail and to far greater effect. I found the second presentation much more compelling and useful than the first. Most effective was his step-by-step analysis of a FlashMob performance at New York’s Central Station. The idea was creative and original, but it was also planned to a very fine level of detail, and many individuals departed from the script in ways that made the experience even more high-quality.

Ewan also delivered several nuggets to remember as we facilitate school change. Emerging technologies have impact because many people share awareness of the tool at the same time. Small, passionate groups make things happen. And I remember one of Ewan’s nuggets from last year: forget the pilot. Come up with a great idea and launch it well. This year, that idea surfaced with the selection of a unique, memorable name for the initiative. In East Lothian’s case, it was “EduBuzz.” Let evangelists evangelize, but then turn them into trainers. People need training, not evangelism (I could stand to remember this sometimes.) Support bottom-up and emergent behaviors through informal structures — meetups, gatherings at bars. Don’t think. Try.

‘Students teaching students’ was a recurrent theme. Over and over again, speakers highlighted the value of exposing students to content, providing time for analysis and reflection, and then having students present content back to the group. Darren Kuropatwa described his everyday practice of students creating Smart Board presentations and then posting them to the class blog, demonstrating their mastery of topics in mathematics and building the ‘textbook’ for the course. Darren also makes great use of imagery and metaphor to get students excited and build real-world relevance. Note that this is a far cry from the applied education of The Met, but it has a far better chance of reaching all learners than direct instruction. Watch video of Darren’s presentation.

Bob Sprankle enlighted us with his use of blogging and podcasting over the years. Again, the dominant message was the high educational value of students producing content, demonstrating their understanding, sharing their knowledge with family members, and even receiving comments from people around the world. I have not yet had the opportunity to gain public visibility and interaction around student work, but we come closer every year. I would probably get a lot more Sprankle in my life if I listened to his podcasts, but I prefer to read.

Clarence Fisher delivered a presentation on international collaboration as the norm, essentially the story of his classroom. Given Clarence’s recent reminder to U.S. edubloggers to refocus on teaching and learning, I knew I would enjoy this session. Clarence opened the door to teachers everywhere to navigate blogs around the world and get their students more globally connected. He also made direct links to the pedagogical usefulness of such an approach — authentic audience, writing the “textbook”, and seeking experts outside of one’s organization. Clarence’s nuggets: design a logo for your classroom, subscribe to Global Voices Online to find the latest international content (he found AfriGadget this way. The most important job as a teacher is to hook up individual students with information tailored to their interests and learning goals. Clarence built his global network by Googling for “grade 8 teacher,” finding teachers with blogs around the world, and then sending dozens of emails seeking collaboration. Clarence does not allow his students to link from their school blog to their personal Facebook pages and such. Clarence’s sites: Thin Walls (collaboration with Los Angeles school) and Studying Societies (class wiki).

The New Technology Foundation promotes many of the same ideas through its national network of “new tech” schools. Starting with New Tech High at Sir Francis Drake in Napa, Bob Pearlman described their emphases on group work, collaboration, and generative work. Again, many of the same ideas, facilitated with technology, starting to form a blueprint for a vision of school reform. They also have a school in Portland.

I learned of several online professional development/school management environments. Check out EduBuzz from Scotland, where 1500 school administrators and teachers reflect online about their practice; PeBL, the online portfolio and learning application from the New Technology Foundation; and Big Picture Online, the online sharing/working/school leadership portal for the Met schools.

For a change, I attended a session that was more about content than pedagogy. The National Archives promotes learning through the critical examination of source documents. The presenter brought several examples, including a military register showing John Glenn and Ted Williams serving in the same unit and a letter that 12 year-old Fidel Castro wrote to President Roosevelt introducing himself and asking for a $10 bill! If you search their Archival Research Catalog (ARC), be sure to click the full Search button search and then click the Digital Copies tab 20080718-Picture 1.png in order to most directly access the source documents themselves instead of just the descriptions! My only complaint about this session was that the presenter focused exclusively on analysis of the source documents. Any real lesson would combine this with other pedagogical techniques. My curiosity was piqued by the military document, I Googled for Ted Williams’ military service and found a wonderful summary that enlightened me about several other fascinating aspects of his military experience that one could not infer from the primary source material. Heck, a colleague at Catlin Gabel informs me that every time he wants to view a speech from any possible historical figure, he finds it on YouTube.

I even presented my own session at this conference, titled “A Window Into Gaza.” I was delighted to present to a full room and elicit three individuals particularly interested in either starting a club at their school or helping put the program in touch with more possible funding sources. See my presentation handout and blog posts right after the event for more information or to get involved.

I can highly recommend this conference for educational technologists focused on teaching and learning. As I hope I have demonstrated above, all of the presenters I saw had a strong grasp of the connections between pedagogy and technology and could provide both wisdom and examples with their presentations. The conference design was superb. Following on the heels of NECC, the contrast is clear. Building Learning Communities keeps the scope of corporate sponsors, vendors, and salespeople to an appropriate place. The vendor “floor” was tiny, and company representatives were genuinely helpful and interested in teachers’ questions and issues. For me, it was easy to steer clear of the vendors and not feel accosted. EduBloggerCon retained the grassroots feel and spontaneous organization that so dramatically failed at NECC. I was able to attend (even sit) at every session I entered, and they even served a sit-down lunch two of the three days! Kudos to the November Learning team for superb organization. I only suggest that they get the proposal submission process and logistics submissions online next year. I was surprised at the number of times I was asked to respond to a question by email instead of an online form. That could not have been easy to collect and organize! I also appreciated ubiquitous wireless access but found it variable in quality. I know it’s very difficult to accomodate the hundreds of laptops that participants brought to the session, but it was a bit hard to lose connectivity periodically, once while presenting! Next year, the conference will be at the Park Plaza hotel in downtown Boston instead of suburban Newton, so pencil in July 27-31 right now!

Window into Gaza Handout

Here is the handout from today’s presentation. Thank you to all who attended!

A Window Into Gaza

The Met / The Big Picture Company

I spent the day at The Met, an internship-based school in Providence that has become a national model for a network of 50 “Big Picture” schools. I was so pleased to witness the program, teachers, and students first-hand after having heard about the school for years. Every time I heard something notable, I Twittered it. Here are my notes:

Waiting to board a bus to The MET in Providence. Excited to see the program first-hand!
I haven’t been on a charter bus in ages. Reminds me of college.
4 Met Schools are fully booked today with PD and community activities.

The Met: connecting internships with learning goals and assessment.

The Met: 98% students accepted into college, all required to apply
62% attend college, 40% complete two or four years

Three R’s: relationships, relevance, rigor

No Met schools in MA – because of high stakes testing? Yet their New York school is making it work.

The Met doctor can be a student’s primary care physician. Part of teaching the whole child.

15-20 social work interns practice at the Met, providing that service to the students.

50 Big Picture schools nationwide. I had no idea.
Rhode Island funds schools at $12,000 per ADA per year. That’s twice the rate in CA!

Assessment: employee evaluations, school work products, exhibitions
Pedagogy: knowing student learning styles; active, authentic, hands-on learning; reflection

The Met: online database of resources. Any member can contribute. An example of structure making an online environment more effective?
Al student work maintained online. Mentioned in passing, but so revolutionary.

Open Office concept. Using school resources independently to get things done. about 11 hours ago from web

Students are in internships 10-12 hours per week.

Internships last 3 months to a year.

Most Met schools are contained within larger schools or other organizations. A surprise for me.

Campus design: retained walkways, kept neighborhood roof lines, open facilities to community, red brick not cinderblock.

I bet these graduates are extremely independent and directed in college.

About to start student walk through the school.

Big Picture Soda: a science project turned commercial success!
Incredible media studio: recording, editing, film studios, control room.

Math needs are poorly met through internships. Why is there so little algebra naturally happening in the workplace?

South Carolina district superintendent at this preconference at The Met. Cool.

Students required to complete 75 page autobiography for graduation!

Curricular areas defined by skills, not content. “The Met Learning Goals”

Quantitative reasoning, social reasoning, communication, empirical reasoning, personal qualities

New digital portfolio system will track content competencies in addition to aforementioned skills (The Met)

The Met unapologetic about preparing kids for a successful career (and why not?)

Big Picture Online: I would like to learn more about the portal that these 50 schools use.

Technology – Pedagogy

I just finished facilitating a session that aimed to make explicit connections between technology activities and specific pedagogical theories of learning. It went okay — we struggled a bit with the challenge of speaking about pedagogy in sufficiently specific terms, in the context of technology activities. Two or three people invoked multiple pedagogical constructs for a single technology example. While this might authentically reflect the real complexity of actual classroom work, I also feel that we would benefit from at least narrowing the conversation to one pedagogical construct at a time in order to truly understand the reason for its effectiveness.

poster signup
Participants expressed interest by posting stickies under the session description.

Here are our notes from today’s session:

Pedagogical Constructs
– Behaviorism: rewards, grades, stars, stickers, reinforcements
– Cognitivism: intellectual complexity, Socratic method, programming, debating
– Constructivism: building meaning based on experience, building knowledge base, socially, based, Montessori, project-based learning, not one authority
– Connectivism: working in a highly connected environment, using your network, blogging, lurking on backchannel (sidebar convos, perhaps) chat
– Engagement, joyful participation
– Differentiated Instruction
– Inquiry model, studio
– Understanding by Design
– Universal Design for Learning: multiple representations


Internet Safety — 5th and 6th graders
– Lecture, poster or comic about one safety rule
– Build a web page and publish it, demonstrating that they can follow the rule
– Connectivism, Understanding By Design: project is available for any student to be successful with, every student completes the task; more than constructivist, because of group work, connected to all teachers, working with and supporting each other

Art/music collaboration: history of silent films, background in nonverbal communication, drama, what it takes to create a movie
– students created storyboard, ideas for how they would create a silent movie
– how can we make this more open to different kinds of students? break students into groups? not so product driven?

Podcast project with ninth grade
– vignettes, write about an experience in their lives, added music and sound effects
– extraordinary podcasts in terms of writing and expression, correcting themselves as they were speaking it aloud
– one kid in particular related his experience with parents getting divorced
– very personal, not shared outside of the class
– differentiated — being able to express themselves in a different way
– kids who had decided they were not good writers
– read vignettes written by other people

Digital Storytelling — fifth grade
– kids had a personal narrative, Macs, iMovie, Garageband
– music, sounds effects, parents made up the audience
– blogged and podcasted so that relatives far away and teachers could also enjoy it
– behaviorism: rewarded for their work
– constructivism, engagement, personal narrative
– can add to story by including random elements, discussing how that impacts the story
– using photos may not be easier, especially if gathering other peoples’ images
– visual literacy: how are images interpreted? How do you tell a story well with images?

Google Tools: teachers investigating tools themselves and thinking about how they could use them in their classrooms, present the tool to the rest of the class
– larger group response and feedback to the tool
– greater opportunity for creativity — more ideas about how tools could be used

VoiceThread: bridging podcasts and vodcasts
– focus on the up-front preparation before you get to the technical tool
– could also have value to throw kids directly into the tool to explore it (e.g., Scratch)
– teachers didn’t think that one would be allowed to submit a research paper as a VoiceThread
– when is the purpose of the lesson exploration? (especially when it is something new). No matter how teacher-directed an activity is, learners find the opportunity to explore.
– exploration is highly constructivist — building your own representation of the tool based on your toying around with it
– power of exploration when there is a direction to it: e.g., “build a house” “build a bicycle”. Need to have some kind of goal, allow the time to explore, fewer projects, more time per project.
– Able to accept as research once you set the bar high for product expectations

Simple repetition: elementary school students record own stories and then, on their own, decide to re-record over and over in order to improve them.

Teaching and Learning (remember them?)

Thankfully, edubloggers are writing about the lack of classroom representation in the most widely read online conversations about educational technologies. Brian Cosby and Clarence Fisher bemoan the lack of teachers at NECC and classroom examples in NECC presentations. He draws attention to the Educational Technology Professional Development Manifesto, which urges presenters at ed-tech conferences to get specific and provide enough detail that others may implement one’s ideas in their schools.

Nancy Bosch suggests that including classroom examples in ed-tech presentations may not be sufficient. Bosch writes:

I spent ten years presenting (as a full time teacher) around my state and district. I also presented for 5 years at NECC and IMHO I was very good at it, bringing hundreds of examples and projects from the classroom to share with the participants. I then suffered from tech overload and frustration because, no matter how much they “oh-ed” and “ah-ed” at workshops, I saw little technology integration in the classrooms throughout my large district.

At the same time, Chris Lehmann feels that edubloggers need to start an organization in order to effect educational change, Will Richardson wonders how to broaden the impact of powerful learning with technology that he and others have witnessed.

On the positive side, Gardner Campbell acknowledges that critical mass grows slowly but offers one institution’s history as a light at the end of the tunnel. Campbell writes:

I was struck by the commonalities with my own experience, as well as with the stories I’ve heard from similar groups: early adopters, early resistance, the slow growth of a critical mass, the difficulties with communication and cooperation and resource allocation that come with all large organizations, the successes, the professional networks, the immense satisfactions.

This leaves me to wonder: what will it take for teachers to more widely teach effectively with technology? I don’t have a single answer, but I think I can see one important missing piece. Edubloggers and teachers are not involved in enough discussions together that address teaching and learning with technology in ways that serve both populations. I have participated in so many discussions with teachers in which we spend a lot of time just to move beyond the idea that teaching with technology means trying a new tool in the classroom. It takes a substantial effort to move the discussion back to the teaching and learning objectives for a unit of study and to bring pedagogy to the forefront. If we really believe that technology is a tool, then the discussion must center about pedagogy. Changing the tool is most the most effective way to improve curriculum, but it does directly change how students interact with curriculum. Pedagogy addresses the creation of learning environments in which students interact with curriculum. Technology tools make it possible to differently implement time-honored pedagogical strategies (group discussion, for instance) and sometimes make possible new pedagogical frameworks (e.g., connectivist environments).

As I enter a new academic year, I hope to collect and present more examples of effective technology integration in the curriculum at my school. Some of it lives within the curriculum integration category of this blog, but if you want to go further back in time, you have to select an archive first and then select the category again — not the best way to navigate this content repository. I would like to draw particular attention to technology uses that are particularly effective at supporting progressive, constructivist pedagogies at our school. For example, our lower (elementary) school Spanish teacher has students creating and revising their own presentations by sitting alone in front of an iMac with video camera. In the middle school, English students write a song about post-Civil War Reconstruction, share it with their classmates to hear, transcribe the lyrics, and then have a discussion about it, all online. In the upper (high) school, a history teacher plans a new Election class for the fall, hoping that students will create their own theories about the roles of new media in this election, using new media tools to investigate the question. The best example from my past is the ChemSense project, in which students create simple, 2D representations of chemical processes and structures and discuss them in an online space. In each case, students construct their own knowledge, and the technology tool makes the process easier and more powerful.

I am convinced that theorists and teachers having more conversations about effective technology support for specific pedagogies can only lead to greater adoption in the classroom.

Our lack of a common vocabulary for new, technology-infused pedagogies works against us. Other new educational ideas, such as small schools and learning differences, have developed this common vocabulary and more quickly make sense to more teachers. In educational technologies, the only common understanding is a false one: that educational technologists simply want teachers to use more technology in their classes, and that this alone will lead to better teaching and learning. Unintentional, unplanned technology integration that uses loads of resources is counterproductive.

The lack of common vocabulary hurts us in another way — Google searches. A teacher using Google to search for technology in the classroom will easily find ‘blog,’ ‘podcast,’ or ‘Web 2.0.’ She won’t just stumble across a discussion about ‘constructivist uses of technology,’ for example. Our good writing about effective technology integration gets lost in the vast pool of ed-tech buzzwords that exist out there. Teachers find plenty of support for the misconception that technology integration is just about the gadgets.

We need more cross-pollination between educational technology and teacher conferences, but we also need new, more clever strategies to make this happen. This year, I succeeded in encouraging our middle school world cultures teacher to submit a proposal to the K12 Online Conference. Now, I hope that the selection committee will accept his proposal, and both ed-tech theorists and classroom practitioners can benefit from viewing his ideas applied to the classroom.

I plan to start a small, professional learning community at my school this year to more frequently engage in regular discussion of the pedagogical applications of computer technologies in the classroom. I hope we will meet both in person and online, and that enough teachers will be sufficiently interested in the concept to give it momentum. In this way, I hope to reclaim the dominant conversation about educational technologies.

I also need to build my own personal collection of web sites that present examples from the classroom in a way that clearly explains the pedagogy underlying the technology. Nancy Bosch has done so. The Apple Learning Interchange, notwithstanding the corporate organization, seems to churn out podcasts and videos on this topic every day. Subscribe to their RSS feed. (I wish they provided more of this content as text.)

Some of us eagerly anticipate the start of Building Learning Communities this week. Others have already begun their work at the Lausanne Laptop Institute. I hope that the recent surge of interest in teachers and classrooms in widely read educational technology discussions continues and becomes permanent. We have completely addressed the broad justifications for this movement. Now, it’s time to get specific and applied.

The amazing, expanding conference


I originally planned to spend three days at Building Learning Communities the week after next. Then, I found out about the preconference trip to The Met, which I have long wanted to visit. Now, some bloggers have scheduled EduBloggerCon East for Monday.

I’m going to approach a five-day conference differently from the original three-day concept. Was planning to basically work all the time in order to make the most of the three days. Knowing that I can’t keep that up for five, I am going to pick and choose instead and just enjoy evenings with my family.

Build online community — graduation tickets?

Here’s a way to get more parents talking through the web site — create an online space to exchange graduation tickets, à la Craigslist! We linked parents to a single thread in a Drupal forum to create this space. There’s only one problem. Only one person so far has tickets available. Everyone else needs tickets!

graduation tickets

Community of practice

Borrowing ideas from Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Chris Lehmann, I would like to strengthen the connection between progressive education and instructional technology next year.

Lehmann deconstructs the Learning to Change video to propose several practical, potentially unpopular ideas: 1) fully adopting social web technologies in education implies committment to progressive educational principles; 2) doing this right requires a lot of effort.

Nussbaum-Beach proposes that educators may, through virtual professional communities, better understand how to teach students 21st century technology literacies.

In our school, teachers normally meet in face-to-face faculty meetings, departmental discussions, and informal conversations around campus. These provide limited opportunities to engage practitioners in thoughtful conversations about using technology to support teaching and learning. I have before experimented with a blog-like format for communicating new resources and ideas to my colleagues, but this became far too one-sided. Teachers rarely replied.

Teachers at our school are innovating uses of educational technologies in remarkable ways but mostly in isolation from each other and based on very different learning objectives. What if we were able to increase the extent to which innovators worked from shared principles and practices?

Could we attempt to create a virtual community of practice within our single school? We have several factors working in our favor. Most of our teachers already know each other. A virtual community could provide more frequent opportunities for discussion than faculty and department meetings. It would overcome obstacles of time and space keeping apart teachers from different divisions (e.g., lower and middle schools).

Challenges are also numerous: the competition for teachers’ free time is just as fierce as it is for face-to-face meetings. Email has so dominated in our school for the last decade that it is difficult to get teachers to hold meaningful discussion in another format. So many initiatives have a history of strong starts and then fizzle out.

One idea (from Nussbaum-Beach): to increase the potential success of this initiative, gain the agreement of a big enough core to actively participate in the online community from the start and take responsibility for its success. Others who show up will find an active discussion taking place, and the burden won’t fall on a tiny group of people (or perhaps just one) to keep the discussion going. Another idea: use occasional face-to-face opportunities to build synergy with the online discussions. A third: create one online space in which to conduct all discussions schoolwide, so that users will have multiple discussions in which to consider participating.

We had success this year building momentum around discussion of social network sites within our “technology advisory group,” a committee that meets monthly face-to-face. We produced two carefully thought-out emails that we sent out to the community, but these on their own did not generate actual discussion, though they did accomplish other objectives.

I field tested the idea of a virtual discussion group for instructional technologies with one teacher the other day and received an overwhelmingly positive response. This encourages me to keep trying with others.

To what extent will we discuss pedagogical theory? I don’t know. For one, many of our teachers already practice progressive education. Yet, it is so difficult to disengage many from the traditional emphasis on the technology itself.

Have you tried to generate online discussions among your teachers? Tell us about it.

Building Online Communities

The PNAIS technology directors listserv has experienced a rebirth this year. As we seek to understand the factors that build successful online learning communities, it’s worth asking why the group took off again this year. No doubt, school technology professionals have a need to get in touch with each other. Most work amongst only a small group of peers in their own institutions — the ability to ask questions of a large number of like-positioned peers has great value. Last year’s TechShare conference may have also had something to do with it. At the conference, 30 regional tech staff got together for the second annual conference, continuing to build face-to-face rapport that bleeds into successful online interactions. In the lead-up to the conference and immediately afterward, conversation on the listserv picked up pace. Don at PNAIS (the list sponsor and host) periodically injects some momentum into the group with well-placed, useful announcements of opportunities or projects in process. Finally, critical mass: when only a few people posted to the list, many stopped paying attention. Now, the more that some people participate, the more that others do as well.

If “technology directors” follows in the footsteps of BAISNet, the next step will involve someone proposing an impromptu, face-to-face meetup when the level of discussion on a particular topic reaches a fever pitch. Then we will be able to mark a new milestone for this online community. Will MACEP get there first?