Relationship Building

IMG_1391This week is vacation week here in New England. It is a time to rest, recharge and reconnect with friends and family outside of school. It’s good to get away for a while so you can get a sense of perspective on the issues, challenges, and opportunities facing you in school. As I look forward to the remainder of the school year, I can’t help but feel excited about using social media in the classroom to collaborate outside of regular school hours, connect with other learners outside of the classroom, and showcase our mastery of skills and essential understandings.
In this moment of quiet contemplation during February vacation, I also take stock in the relationships that I am lucky enough to have in my professional life. Relationships are a valuable resource and if we are successful in our efforts to teach the value of collaboration and cooperation, our students will benefit from this resource in two ways. They will move forward with the relationships they have forged in high school serving as a valuable network. In addition, they will benefit from the skills we have helped them develop regarding relationship building and maintenance.

I am thankful that I took the leap last August and made social networking central to my professional toolbox. Social media has helped me feel closer to the parents of my students in a way that I have not experienced in my 16 years in teaching. I may not get feedback from all of the families who read this blog, but at least I am reaching out and keeping them updated on the big picture as I see it. In reaching out frequently to my stakeholders through social media, I have become more approachable in face to face interactions. When parents come in to school for meetings or conferences, it seems to me that they feel more familiar with me. This allows our interaction to be more relaxed and personal. When parents have meetings with teachers and staff about any variety of purposes concerning their children’s education, it is important that parents feel they are being dealt with personally. This can not be overstated.

In my role as teacher, I depend upon the trust and the willingness to participate that I have built with each of my students. Social media is essential in extending my availability to students. In order to keep students engaged, I have to show them that I am there to support them at every step of the way. Thanks to social media like Edmodo and Twitter, I am able to interact with my students on their time.  As I conduct part of my professional life on social media–whether it be curating content with my professional learning network on Twitter or replying to student questions about homework–I am also welcoming students into that professional life.  As we move forward conducting the official business of teaching and learning during the school day, students also come to know me for the life I lead outside of the classroom.

This past week was a momentous one in my family.  We welcomed a new baby boy into our family.  As we enjoyed our first few days together, I was warmed by the outpouring of well-wishes from my students and colleagues on social media.

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Relationships are precious resources not just in education but in all fields of life.  Through social media, we are able to build more personal relationships with our students and colleagues.  When we break down walls and let students into our professional and even our personal lives, they see us for who we are and trust develops.  When students trust us, they are willing to follow us as we lead them just outside their comfort zone, where the learning takes place.

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The illusion of multitasking

Last Thursday morning before leaving for school, I was ironing my shirt in the kitchen while listening to WBUR on my NPR app on my  iPad.  I do this often, listening to the news while I get ready for the day, before anyone else in my family is awake.  If I don’t catch a few news stories, then I spend ten minutes or so reading blog posts linked to my Twitter feed.  If I don’t set aside some time in the beginning of the day for news and information, I rarely find the time later.

As I creased and pressed my shirt that morning, I became rapt to a story written by Kurt Nickisch entitled “The Perils and Evolving Promise of Multitasking.”  I link it here to my own peril.  I want you to read/hear this story, but at the same time, I want you to remain and read what I am about to write.  In the end, it is beyond my control.  You will have to decide.

The story addressed concerns I’ve heard a lot this year from my students regarding technology.  My students, mainly my juniors, understand the power of technology and are willing and able to use it as a learning tool.  At the same time, however, many of them report that often technology distracts them from their educational purposes and leads to their spending way more time doing nightly homework.  I acknowledge this concern as well, but I believe in my gut that it is my duty to build technology in the context of classroom learning.  It would be far easier to block out the distraction that handheld devices pose and revert back to “traditional” chalk and talk in the classroom.  I understand and empathize with my colleagues who do not allow students to use their smartphones in class.  I tell my students all the time that I absolutely love the literature that we are studying–Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Orwell’s 1984 among others–and nothing would be easier for me than to sit in front of them daily and lecture about the subtleties of this masterpieces.  In fact, I do a lot of talking during class.  But to hedge against my inner desires to morph into a college English professor, I employ technology to give students agency to create new experiences and meaning from their interactions with these great books.

How do I do this, you ask?

First off, I publish my daily agenda on our class social network, edmodo, before class.  As soon as I post it, students get an alert on their smartphones.  I usually try to schedule these posts to go live right as the bell rings to end the previous class, so I am not the cause of distraction in a colleague’s class.

Here’s a sample agenda for my B block junior class from last week, actually from the morning I heard the story on multitasking.  You will see by clicking the link that this is a standard English class-type of activity.  I give students a writing prompt to start the lesson, which they do in an old-fashioned notebook.  Then I put pair them up and have them discuss the reading from the night before, in this case, it was Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” Speech.  We then move from small group discussion to whole class discussion and then I give them some written homework based on what they discussed in class. The technology, though used only during the hw portion of the lesson, is actually central to the learning objective which appears embedded in the agenda as “What are the positive and negative aspects of Washington’s key ideas in the speech?”  If I did not use technology in this lesson, I would have had students answer that question in writing for hw.  I would have collected it the next day, read it over the weekend, and given it back to them four or five days later.  Because I asked students to post the highlights of their classroom discussion on a common Google doc, I was able to monitor the Google doc as they did it.  The next day in class, I had a clear idea of which parts of the text students grasped well and which parts needed further discussion.  In this way, technology became part of my formative assessment, which is how we evaluate students’ progress on their way towards the mastery objectives, which will be evaluated in a summative assessment.  If you take some time to look at the agenda, read the speech, and o peruse the Google doc with my students’ analysis of key quotations in the speech, you can evaluate for yourself the understanding that is exhibited.

As you can see, the classroom experience for students involves reading, asking questions, writing, building meaning through large and small group discussion.  These are perennial activities in all high school English classrooms.  Being a “connected educator,” I am not trying to subvert the tried and true methods of teaching.  Believing it my duty to “integrate technology into my classroom,” I am not merely trying to keep them busy with electronic gadgets.  Allowing my students to have and utilize their e-devices during class, I am not opening a Pandora’s box of distraction.  I am giving students opportunities to use technology in real-world settings.  As high school students, the classroom is their “real world” and so they must learn how to manage their attention span, figure out for themselves when it is appropriate to switch the device off, and most importantly leverage technology to work collaboratively with their colleagues in ways that we adults never did when we were in school.

Technology can be a distraction.  I too am allured by the “illusion of multitasking,” that feeling that quantity of information is better than quality.  But I know better.  I wanted to write this blog post for six days.  For six days, it has been in my head, waiting for my full attention.  It wasn’t my highest priority, until this evening.

When I ask students to use technology as part of their experience in my English class, I am hoping that through this experience, they will become more self-aware about how they can best leverage the power of technology.  I am not trying to get them addicted to electronic devices or feed their desire to be connected to thousands of “friends” all at once.  They need our help to figure when and how it works for them.  If we constantly yell at them to “put that thing away,” we are not helping them.  The user needs to develop that self-awareness.

I was able to finish ironing my shirt and get to school safely the day I heard the story about the perils of multitasking.  I was able to devote my time and attention to  my students, my colleagues, my school, and my family in the week since I thought about writing this blog post.  I know when I must put away my iPhone.

You, if you got this far, also understand the benefits of using technology to connect to people and ideas.  You understand that reading this blog and many others is an important part of engaging in the education of your children.  You know deep down that technology has unlimited potential for learning and unlimited potential for distracting.  The only way to unlock that learning potential is to help young people recognize that multitasking is an illusion.

We can’t do this on our own!  We have to work together.  You might start by viewing this short video interview with your student and having a chat about figuring out the right balance for oneself.

Please let me know what you think and/or how that discussion goes…