When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Exciting and humbling: that’s how I describe my role as a middle school technology teacher. Exciting because I get to use all the cool new toys: video editing software, game design software, new PCs, robots, tablets, etc. Humbling because many of my students learn the technologies faster than I do. This year is especially humbling because it’s my first year at a new school and I’m still finding my niche. Teaching subjects like video editing, robotics, and game programming are wonderfully exciting. But it’s also humbling because the tools my students are using are ones I’m still learning myself. Not a day goes by when I can’t answer a question a student has about one of the tools and I have to turn to other students to help me. It makes me wonder what they think of me as their teacher.

I know I’m being too hard on myself and I should be patient. I’ve learned much about how I learn from taking guitar lessons for the last two years. When my guitar teacher gives me a new piece learn, he has me sight read it on the spot. Usually I play it terribly. I’ve had to a realize I am not someone who learns things right on the spot. I have to go back and work on it by myself at my own pace before it starts to make sense. And as I get older, I’m facing the fact that I learn slower than I did when I was younger. This would explain why my kids pick things up much faster than I do.

Now I know how other teachers feel when they try to implement technology into their lessons. It’s different. It’s scary. It’s new. Even though technology is my specialty, even I have trouble learning it quickly enough. And that’s exciting…..and humbling….

 

Connecting and Communicating

As the old sayings go, “Teaching is an isolating profession.”  and “Every classroom is its own world.”  I never really understood those phrases before I started teaching.  How could teaching be isolating when you are around students all day?  Its own world?  There are classrooms of kids right next door!

But when I finally had a classroom of my own, I quickly understood.  Even though I had students all day long, I really didn’t know many of the other students.  Even though I was next to the library, I felt miles away from the other middle school teachers.  My students and I developed daily procedures and habits we followed the entire year.  The only time I would see other teachers is for 15 minutes a day in a noisy cafeteria.  Indeed, I felt isolated and in my own world.  And being an extrovert, it was driving me crazy.  I was so busy with the day-to-day activities of planning, teaching, and grading I felt like I was in a rut.

My role is very different this year.  While I don’t see students all day long, I see multiple groups in the technology lab and in their laptop-equipped classrooms.  Instead of seeing only 6th through 8th grade students, I see Kindergartners through 8th graders.  While I don’t have to grade or have meetings with parents, I still have to plan my lessons.  And for a while, it was comfortable and fine.  But something was missing.  I felt we were doing the same things over and over again:  find out the content from the teacher and make Powerpoint presentations on the content.   We weren’t moving forward or pushing the boundaries.  Yes, making flaming transitions on your slides is interesting, but after help dozens of students do the exact same function, it gets a bit old.  We needed to spice things up.

It was about that time my principal sent me a link to a project aimed specifically at middle school students about digital citizenship.  It was called Digiteen, a project under the Flat Classroom Project.  I read the material and decided to give it a try.  At the same time, I started reading the Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds book.  Both of these activities, along with being more active on Twitter, are beginning to change my entire view on education and technology.

My background is in technology:  I hold a B.S. in Computer Science and I was a professional software developer for 12 years before I started teaching.  So my view of educational technology naturally begins with the technology itself.  But the more I teach, the more I realize that’s the wrong approach.  You can’t start with the technology and make it fit the student.  You start with the student and mold the technology to fit the student’s needs.  It’s taken me a long time to get used to this concept.

But beyond my own thinking, I’m thinking of the impact Digiteen is having on my students. Many of them have never connected or communicated with people outside of their own city.  For the last few weeks, they have been posting to students from all over the world on Edmodo and our class wiki.  And today we even used Skype to communicate with some of them.  These are important moments for them.  Moments I hope they remember and build on.

I’ve broadened my connection and communication to my elementary students, creating blogs for each of their classrooms.  My goal is to connect all the blogs and have them comment on student’s posted from different classes on different grade levels.  Then we can go global and really connect with the world.  I’ve also discovered the multitude of global projects my students can participate in no matter how old they are.  Exciting times indeed.  This is only the beginning.

Quest for the 21st Century Classroom

Last year I was given the task of finding a 21st century classroom. Being the geek-turned-teacher I am, I imagined smart boards on every wall and touch screen devices for every student.
So we visited a few schools and spoke to their teachers and students. Some had iPads for every student. Some had technology over five years old. But we still didn’t see what we thought was a 21st century classroom. So I kept researching. I looked at the ISTE NETS standards but they looked broad, vague, and written in 2007! That’s a lifetime ago in the technology world. I expected to see things like tablets, tweets, and Skype in these standards. But they weren’t. I kept digging. And the more I dug, the more the letter C kept coming up: connection, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, citizenship, creativity, choice, celebration. Technology was barely mentioned. Finally, my techie brain realized that a 21st century is about students first and technology second. Those skills were what made a 21st century class with technology used to support them. Connecting through blogs, communicating through Skype, collaborating through wikis, and so on. A 21st century classroom looks behind its four walls and connects to classrooms down the hall, across campus, across town, country and throughout the world. These are not things you always see when you walk into a classroom. They don’t always take the latest technology to succeed. But what they do take is a brave teacher and willing students who are ready to explore the great unknown and learn as they go. And isn’t that what teaching is all about?

Educational Technology Is Not About Technology

I’m a technology guy first and a teacher second.  At least I used to be.  I have a B.S. in Computer Science and 12 years as software developer so technology has been my life for many years.  But the last 8 years of teaching and parenting has changed my philosophy about technology.  Building desktop computers, upgrading software, writing code, playing video games, and complaining about users dominated much of my earlier career.  I was so immersed in the technical side of the field that I didn’t realize my job would not exist without users.

Now that I’m a teacher and converted Apple fan, I live on every iRumor that appears on my radar.  My house is dominated by Apple products: phones, tablets, laptops, etc.  I crave every new product they create.  But as a technology educator, I have think differently. While it would wonderful to provide iPads for every student in our school, you can’t just drop them off in a kindergarten class, say “good luck”, and expect them to automatically learn calculus.  The technology is simply a tool.  My technology director is fond of calling it the modern day pencil.  Technology in education is transformational and amazing but it’s still just a tool.  An iPhone in the hands of blind student is useless unless it’s used to enhance the learning of that student.  Otherwise, it’s a overpriced paperweight.  We should never start with the technology in mind and then think about how the students should use it.  It should be the other way around.  Start with the student and mold the technology to help the student.

In other words, educational technology is not about technology.  It’s about the student.  And it always will be.  Let’s never forget that.

 

Technology Beyond the Computer Lab

Remember the days when you went to the computer lab to do your class projects?  Computer labs:  imposing places with strict rules and sarcastic, awkward geeks who were supposed to help you instead of making you feel like a total idiot for asking how to print.  I remember very clearly because I used to be one of those geeks who helped people.  I tried not to be sarcastic when people asked questions, but I couldn’t help the awkward part.  And twenty years later, I’m still helping people in a computer lab where I work.  And these people are teachers and I’m also teaching their students.  Students who are having their first experience in a computer lab.  A computer lab I want to be different than the kind I used to work in.  A lab where students are comfortable asking any question.  Where they can experiment and explore without fear of being punished.  Where they can create, communicate, and collaborate with their classmates, other classes, and even other students beyond the school walls.  A flat classroom with no walls.

It seemed to go fairly well this year with teachers bring their classes to the lab for instruction that was related to what they were learning in their own classrooms.  But something seemed to be missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  It was right about the time a began teaching a new class to middle school students called Digiteen, which is a project under the Flat Classroom Project that teaches students about digital citizenship and safe online choices.  In the process of starting the class, I met the organizers online and set up the tools my students would be using to research and collaborate with other students from different countries.  I also began reading the Flatting Classrooms, Engaging Minds book that was related to the project.  I began realizing how dated my technology instruction had been.  I started connecting with other educators and reading what they had been doing in their classrooms and I was blown away.  First graders videoconferencing?  Fourth graders doing their entire writing portfolio online with wikis and sharing them with multiple countries?  I was astounded.

The first day of my class, I was bubbling with excitement when I shared with my students what we would be doing.  I was sure they would be thrilled as well.  But they looked at me with blank stares and asked, “So…we’re gonna Skype every class then?”  When I talked about doing research on digital citizenship topics and collaborating on a wiki with international students, they simply looked at me without comprehension.  We’ve had several classes since and I think they are slowly understanding.  It’s a difficult process because it’s so new, but I’m hoping they really get something out of it.

But then I started to look at the elementary students who come to my computer lab.   Shouldn’t they also be a part of this global project too?  So I decided to make a change in how I taught.  Instead of having the classes always come to the computer lab for instruction, I decided to go to their classrooms, which already had laptops, and teach them in their environment.  I set both 5th grade classes up with blogs and they are now communicating with another class in a different state.  We plan to Skype with them tomorrow.  We are all very excited.  Stay tuned…..

Video Game Design: Teaching Reflections Part 1

As a lifelong gamer (both tabletop and video), I view games as more than just diversions or time-wasters.  I view them as learning tools.  Tools than can teach skills like communication, collaboration, logic, patience, problem solving, critical thinking, reading, math, and many more.  But many games have a bad reputation as being violent, repetitive, or simply glorified babysitters.  Part of the reason is the word itself.  According to game designer Jane McGonigal, the word “game” is used negatively in our everyday language: “Don’t play games with me!”, “He is gaming the system.”,”What do you think this is: a game?”  Popular culture and the media have only worsened the stereotype.  News stories abound blaming video games when gunmen shoot innocents.  But those who play games know the value of what they are playing, even if they can’t explain it others.

With these thoughts in mind, I designed and taught a video game design course to middle school students this school year.  I want to share my experience.

At first, I thought I was in heaven:  I got to teach one of my passions to a new generation.  Of course, I had a class of all boys, 15 of them.  I had visions of creating Xbox Kinect games and iPhone apps.  It was going to be fantastic.

But what I didn’t realize at the time was something that became painfully obvious as the weeks went on:  playing games is more fun that creating them.  And since this was an elective with only a pass/fail grade, most of the boys wanted to play instead of work.  So began a recurring battle:  how to inspire my students to create the games they want to play.

Geek-turned-Teacher: Once a Geek, Always a Geek

My wife is f0nd of the saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it.”  This year, I got exactly what I wanted.  After struggling last school year with grading, lesson planning, and getting used to being a classroom teacher, I finally earned a position I’ve been working towards for almost seven years:  full-time technology teacher.  I remember when I first left the technology industry, expecting to easily find a technology teaching position in the public school system.  That was my first taste of the highly political world of public education.  Now I’m in private education and things work differently.  The red tape of budgets, committees, government funding, etc. is gone.  I’ve been given the responsibility of shaping the technological future of our school.  I better not screw it up.

Geek-turned-Teacher: The New School

2010 was a watershed year for me. It was a year I left a school and a teaching  job I knew was wrong for me. A year, after six long years, when I finally got what I really wanted. Honestly, I knew a high poverty, mostly African-American school was not a long term gig for me: a white, middle class former software developer. In fact, I stayed longer than the three years required, even though I probably mentally checked out two years before. But I stayed partly because I had a fairly easy job and partly because of sheer pride.
So when the opportunity to work at small, mostly white private school closer to my house practically fell in my lap, I jumped at the chance.

Now that I have been at my new school for a half a year, I wanted to look back at how things have changed.
The first culture shock I had was actually at my job interview.  I’ve been on many interviews in my life and I thought I was ready for anything.  Thinking back many years ago, I remember a particularly rough group interview where the interviewers asked me the question, “Mr. Meyers, is there a programming language you do NOT like?”  My response: “Well, I really don’t like COBOL.”  Long pause.  “Mr. Meyers, do you realize that most of the programming we do here is in COBOL?”  Oops.  Anyway, I went into this interview ready with my standard answers.  Turns out, I didn’t need them.  It didn’t feel like an interview at all.  It felt like a conversation with old friends as we discussed educational philosophies.  They had read my blog and wanted my opinions on education and technology.  I wasn’t used to this treatment.  I was used to being browbeaten, ignored, and treated like a child.  This was refreshing.  They had me at “we don’t have discipline problems” and “you don’t have to write IEPs.”  My final interview with the head of school was even more shocking.  For one thing, she hugged me.  Never in my life have I ever been hugged by my boss, much less someone who had not even hired me yet.  This simple act was the beginning of a feeling of family I had never felt in any organization in my entire working life.  I had been so used to distrust and distance that I was completely overwhelmed.  She even called me a role model because of my choice to become a teacher in spite of my speech impediment.  Was this too good to be true?  When I got the job offer and it was less than my current salary, I didn’t blink.  There are some things money just can’t buy.

 

Social Media Sharing: A Double-Edged Sword

As a middle child, my life has been defined by sharing.  Most of my clothes and toys were shared to me by my older brother.  I shared many of my things with my younger sister.  To this day, whenever something wonderful happens to me, the first thing I want to do is share it with someone.  As a teacher, whenever I learn something, I want to share it with my students.  When my students do something great, I want to share it with their parents and other teachers.  I believe most teachers want to share with other teachers so we can all be better at what we do:  educate our students.  But sharing among teachers has traditionally been difficult.  Teaching can be a very isolating profession.  Most of us spend the entire day in one location and only see other teachers infrequently.  Faculty meetings are usually dominated by the need to unwind and relax rather than really sharing knowledge.

We need to do better.  But how?

One good way is through social media.  Unfortunately, social media has a bad reputation and many teachers shun it.  Many of us think social media is just rambling about what we had for breakfast and posting stupid pictures of our pets.  Or we think we have nothing interesting to say or we want to remain private.  The great thing about social media is that you can tailor it any way you want to.  For instance, I use Facebook to post personal things to people who I know.  I use Twitter to network and share with other teaching and technology professionals.  While these are the two most popular social media platforms, there are many more that can focus just on the areas we want.  Nings are flexible social networks that are specific to a subject.  Tools like Diigo let you share interesting bookmarks with people in your profession.  There are also thousands of blogs that focus on any topic you want.  So how do you find these resources, connect with others, and share information? Personally, I use Twitter as the hub of my professional network.  I carefully select the people I follow, categorize them in lists, and interact with them periodically.  I read their blogs, retweet their postings, reply to their questions, and post my own messages.  When I find an interesting link but don’t have time to read it, I use Instapaper to save it and categorize it so I can read it later.

So what does all this have to do with sharing as a double-edged sword?  Well I’ve found (the hard way) that there is a fine line between being “active” on social media and being obnoxious.  Some people go completely overboard and feel like they should post anything and everything: how they feel, what they ate, where they are, what they hate, etc.  The key is how to convey what’s on your mind without spamming people.  Personally, I’m still working on that myself.  I’m making a concerted effort to think about what I am posting and what value it might have to the people who follow or friend me.  Do my friends really want to know when I get a hamburger from McDonalds?  On the other hand, when something tragic happens in my life, do I really want to share that with everyone?

Some have stated that social media has not really made us anymore social because everyone is shouting what’s on their minds but they aren’t listening to what other people are saying.  That’s an interesting point.  Here’s an experiment:  for every social media update you make about yourself, respond to three updates from other people.  It’s easy to only talk about ourselves.  It’s much harder to listen and ask about other people.

I just went to a workshop where I asked how can we share without oversharing or seeming like we are bragging.  The speaker suggested you share other people’s work as often as your own.  Also, when you share, ask for help from others and include them in the process.  I plan to do more of both of those in my future postings.

So let’s get out there and share!

Geek-turned-Teacher Year 2: I am NOT a Euro-snob

I am NOT a Euro-snob…well, maybe a little.

In 2003, I got to do three amazing things many people only dream about.  First, I flew to California and cheered from the 50-yard-line as my beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their first Super Bowl. (Thanks to my awesome sister-in-law and father-in-law for making the entire trip free).  Two weeks later, I was watching the rain-soaked Daytona 500 with a free ticket from my boss.  In October, my wife and I went on a two-week Rick Steves‘ tour of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.   Shortly afterward, I quit my $70,000-a-year, 5-minute commute software programming job to become a teacher.

There are moments in your life when you realize you are experiencing something you will remember for decades.  Events so rich you know you will be telling them to your grandchildren or to anyone who will listen at a retirement home when your life is in its twilight.  Such were the multitude of moments from those three trips.  I drew on those incredible memories in my first year teaching on my own.  I vowed to teach these kids about the pure joy of celebrating a victory with lifelong fans, the magic of medieval castles along the majestic Rhein River, and the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp.  I wanted them to know the world was their oyster and they could go anywhere and do anything they wanted.  They did not have to live the same lives their parents and grandparents did.  As it turned it, they taught me more about their culture than I taught them about mine.

I was lucky.  I did not have a class of my own to manage the entire day.  I moved from class to class, working with individual students or groups of students.  The students ranged from kindergarten to fifth grade and had difficulties ranging from behavioral issues to learning problems.  I enjoyed the variety and movement my position afforded me.  I got to know more students and teachers than anyone in the school.  I got to learn the culture of the school and how it operated.  That first year, the teachers were so grateful for my help in their classes, it never mattered how long I was there as long as I was supporting them.  The second year was very different.

Meet the new boss. NOT the same as the old boss.

We had a new principal and several new teachers.  We also had more students.  My first year our school population was around 650 yet our overall building capacity was around 1,000.  We were a magnet school in a high-poverty area, so we used the magnet program to draw students from other areas of town to our school.  But we weren’t drawing enough.  At the same time, several smaller schools in the area were overcrowded and could not accept more students.  So the school district decided to create a village of schools were students from the surrounding area could go to any of the schools and they had priority over magnet students.  As a result, our population increased to nearly 900 students in one year, most of them neighborhood kids from the other schools.  So much for the magnet program.  Also, our new principal had just come from a very small school.  Now she was taking over a very large school with almost 300 new students on top of the 600 already there.

When I met my new principal, I was thrilled.  She was the polar opposite of my former administrator: open, easy to talk to, and she listened to me.  I used to say to my friends that I used to carry a shield when I walked to my former principal’s office.  I used the “shield” to protect myself because she would immediately start attacking me for something before I could even sit down.  I’m still convinced the only reason she didn’t fire me that first year was because I was a male and special education certified, a combination so rare in elementary schools that should have convinced me to play the lottery.  This new principal actually smiled and asked my opinion on school matters.  She even called me by my first name for a little while.

The impossible caseload

Happy as a clam, I started working on theoretical time travel cloning, also known as my student contact schedule.   Those of you who have written schedules for elementary schools might have some idea of what I am talking about.  Scheduling reading, math, writing, gym, music, art, lunch in a six-hour day for a class of twenty students is nothing short of a nightmare.  Now image you have to do the same thing multiplied by 6 (kindergarten through 5th grade).  Then consider the students you have to see are in different classrooms within different grade levels. But wait, there’s more…you have no planning time and have morning, lunch, and afternoon school duties to perform.  Good times.  During my second year, I was supposed to service 35 students every day: helping them with work, modifying their tests, helping the teachers grade their work. etc.  I actually calculated it at one point and determined the only way I could legally service all of my students was to make FIVE copies of myself and send each clone to a different classroom.

Somehow, I managed to get through the year keeping most people happy.  I even wrote 15 additional Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for a teacher who quit in the middle of the year.  I was on fire and loving every minute.  It was the high point of my time at this school.  But the end of the school brought a major change:  I was going to be a father the next year.

Next:  Who’s Your Daddy?


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