Sunday, November 24, 2013

Have You Been "Edcamped"?

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending EdCampNJ at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, New Jersey. I had been anticipating this event for several weeks. I was looking forward to the great conversations I would have with like-minded educators. I could not wait to get a look at the schedule of "workshops" that were created after registering. That's right, all of the presentations were attendee-driven. There were no pre-assigned workshops. If there was something you did not see that you liked, attendees were encouraged to start their own. Talk about complete control of your own learning...

Needless to say, I arrived early to participate in the great #satchat conversation prior to EdcampNJ starting. The conversation was focused around free Professional Learning for Educators. The moderators did a great job of keeping the conversation moving along for an extremely fast-paced hour. It was during this time that I found myself "listening in" on conversations around me. I was not eavesdropping, per se, but drawn to the tone of the conversations. I could not get over the professionalism and passion that these conversations possessed. It was unlike any other workshop I had ever attended. There were educators from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and yes, I believe Wisconsin, passionately discussing issues and I found myself listening to them more than what was going on in #satchat (sorry Billy, Brad and Scott!). I automatically felt connected to these fellow educators simply due to the enthusiasm by which they talked about their roles in education.

Shortly after #satchat concluded, I had the privilege of meeting up with a Twitter friend of mine, @jsprfox. We immediately broke into a conversation about topics each of us had blogged about. We fired questions back and forth about how things were going with Standards Based Grading to preparing students for state exams. Upon reflection, this conversation came naturally with a person I had just met face to face for the first time. Why is that? Without a doubt, it was due to our prior connections through #sbgchat. We were talking as if we had been friends for years. I was officially "EdCamped".

The morning was filled with more learning. I attended two great sessions on Standards Based Grading (more on this in a later post) and Flipping Lessons. I rushed to lunch to meet up with Jasper to continue our conversation from earlier. While at the table, I met up with another Twitter friend, @sstorm01. Again, the conversations we had waiting in line for lunch continued to the table was full of as much professionalism as any of the sessions I attended. The connections the three of us had through our discussions on Twitter provided us with a common ground that promoted a great conversation with two other passionate, dedicated educators.

That is the best way I can describe "Being Edcamped". You quickly get wrapped up in an environment that promotes professionalism and passion about education. You can not help yourself but leave completely rejuvenated after spending 8 hours with enthusiastic educators. I really do think Edcamp is what Jimi Hendrix had in mind when he asked the question, "Are You Experienced?" I can not wait until next year.

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Educational Philosophy

Twenty years ago, I had the privilege of being assigned to an Eighth Grade Civics teacher for one of my Education classes at Elizabethtown College. I had the opportunity to sit in his class twice a week and observe his classes. I had the chance to see how he organized a lesson, dealt with classroom disruptions and interacted with the children in his classroom. Hanging above the chalkboard was a sign: "No One of Us is as Smart as All of Us." This slogan was the cornerstone of the culture in his classroom. He used this strategy to engage students in discussions from the voting process to The Bill of Rights.

After some reflection, I realized I have not strayed too far from this same slogan. I do believe, however, I have taken a slightly different spin on it. I have used this slogan to constantly push for a Growth Mindset in my classroom. I passionately believe that ALL students can succeed. I believe that ALL students can learn. How is this possible? By creating an environment where all students are encouraged to complete retakes and redoes if they failed in their first attempt at learning. With this mindset, students do not give up because they understand that their teacher has created a system that allows for improvement in everything they do. Persistency is a key ingredient to a life-long learner.

Standards Based Grading (SBG) has been a huge help in creating this environment in my classroom as well. Here, students are "graded" on how they demonstrate their knowledge of the standards in the curriculum, excluding everything that is linked to behavior or habits. Do not get me wrong, behavior and habits are important, but they are on-going skills for my students to learn. I can not in good conscience punish a student with a lower grade because he or she does not have the home environment that is conducive to completing homework. Therefore, I must find other ways to let him or her show their understanding.

Administratively, I would apply this same Growth Mindset with my staff as well. Specifically, Teacher Observations are an excellent way to work with the teachers to reflect on the areas they do well and the topics they can show growth on. I believe that if this relationship is done correctly, teachers will be more open to frequent observations as long as the feedback is relevant, timely and concise. Creating an environment where teachers are eagerly looking to reflect and improve on their craft is a critical role of an administrator.

In the above paragraph, I have mentioned another key ingredient to my educational philosophy: Making and Maintaining Connections.  The culture I have created in my room would not be possible if I did not take the time to talk and learn from my students. I spend extra time engaging them in conversations to find out things about them. I ask questions about a sports game, a play they acted in, a concert they sang or played in or a trip they recently took. I honestly believe taking this extra time to get to know my students sends the message that I think they are a key member of a classroom. My experience tells me students are more likely to work for a teacher who has taken the time to get to know them.

Social Media is another way I have made and maintained connections. I am a better educator now because of the connections I have made through Twitter. I am able to connect with educators from around the world to discuss things from Increasing Parental Involvement to Taking Steps to Eliminate Bullying in our Schools. Through these connections, I have been able to take control of my own Professional Learning. This is the most attractive feature of Twitter, the fact that I do not have to wait until a certain day on the school calendar when I can join a Twitter chat several times a week.

Lastly, I would also push for connecting with the families of our students. I would reach out to let them know I think they are a critical part of our school community. I would seek their feedback on ways to improve our school, while maintaining high academic standards. These connections might have to be done at PTO meetings, sporting events, band recitals or theater productions. Being visible is a great way to increase the chance of making a connection.

I am excited to see how my philosophy changes over the last half of my career. What new technology will allow me to keep growing and connecting with new people? Regardless of what the future might bring, I am looking forward to the challenges that I may face. My connections have allowed me to see that it truly takes a village, because "No One of Us is as Smart as All of Us."!