Looking Forward to EduCon 2.0

I've been very busy lately. First, I had to finish the complete draft of my thesis to be sent to the external reviewer before the defense. Then, I immediately turned my attention to EduCon 2.0. It's an important event for me for many reasons. First of all, it comes at a time when my research and thesis are finished and I can finally reflect on the whole experience which, as you can imagine, was about so much more than blogging. Yes, the thesis focuses on what happens when a group of grade eight students start researching and blogging while their teacher becomes a listener, a learner, and a contributor. But what I've learned from the research goes beyond blogging. My research taught me many important things about teacher professional development, classroom design, virtual environments, pedagogical shifts in the 21st century, and the nature of learning and instructional conversations. That's one reason why I'm looking forward to EduCon 2.0 - planning a presentation/conversation for those who are interested in attending my session gives me an amazing opportunity to reflect on what I have learned. But there are other, equally important reasons. EduCon provides an opportunity to meet many of the incredibly inspiring people whose work over the past few years contributed to my professional growth as an educator and a researcher. A couple of days ago, when I read carefully the list of all participants and presenters, I realized that going to EduCon will be like walking into my Google Reader, except that we'll finally be able to shake hands!

I look forward to meeting some of my long-time virtual mentors: Will Richardson, Chris Lehmann, Christian Long, Patrick Higgins, David Warlick, and Joyce Valenza to name just a few. Their work has been instrumental in helping me with my doctoral research journey.

Also, along with Sharon Peters and Mario Asselin, I will be part of a small Canadian contingent. Sharon and I met at a conference last year and have stayed in touch ever since. I know that this conference will give us yet another opportunity to chat about curriculum and professional development. I have never met Mario, however, but his work as Principal of Institut St-Joseph in Quebec City inspired me at the very beginning of my doctoral research to follow the example set by his school and use blogs or electronic portfolios to create a virtual extension of my classroom. When I first found out about his work through Stephen Downes' seminal article on blogging, I knew that my research had to revolve around eportfolios and blogs. It will be good to chat with him about blogs and the work he's been doing since.

Finally, I'm looking forward to EduCon because it will take place inside a school, not at some posh convention centre. In other words, we will interact in the very spaces where learning takes place, in spaces where students interact on a daily basis. If our work revolves around classrooms, then talking about what we do shouldn't take place away from them unless absolutely necessary. Thanks, Chris, for bringing us together in an environment designed for interactions and learning, not just public speaking and passive reception.

I mention interactions because the Science Leadership Academy has been designed with interactions - with meaningful interactions - in mind. That is one of the biggest reasons why I can't wait to see the school. According to DesignShare, the Science Learning Academy has been described as "one of the only examples of School 2.0 in the United States (and beyond)." It is a place where "the school's founder and the architects tried to make the renovated space [converted office building in an urban context] come to life to support a truly new way of embedding technology into the lives of their students/teachers."

This is especially important to me because, when I first started teaching, I was given a classroom with no windows and a malfunctioning air conditioning unit. Needless to say, we ventured out of that classroom on a regular basis and, at the very beginning of my career, I found myself having classes in hallways, the courtyard, in the gym, and on the soccer field. At first, I looked at it as an unnecessary disruption, a nuisance, and envied teachers who had classrooms with windows and proper ventilation. But, as time went on, I began to realize that leaving the classroom was often the best thing to be done. These experiences led me to believe that the four confining walls can be very conducive to delivering lectures, but not always to meaningful interactions. Ever since, I've been very interested in classroom design and my interest in creating virtual environments for learning stems from my early teaching experiences outside of the classroom.

So, when I first found out about EduCon, I knew that I had to be there to see this innovative learning space and to meet the principal who believes that "the design of a building [can] serve a particular pedagogy" and that "we can create schools where what we do with the information we can access is more important than the information we can memorize" (Lehmann, 2007).

The Science Leadership Academy is a school where the administrative offices, including the Principal's office, are an integral, transparent, and accessible part of the school:

Because our school's core principles stress the collaborative and transparent nature embedded in "School 2.0" thinking, we moved the Principal's Office to the front of the office suite with a door leading straight into the main hall. Better yet, we wanted no "gate-keeper" guarding access to my office.

From day one, the students and teachers would see my office as their office. Within the overall administrative suite, we made the offices smaller and created space for teachers and administrators and support staff to gather together. The office essentially was designed as community work-space and a dynamic teachers' lounge all in one (Lehmann, 2007).

In addition, the cafeteria - referred to at the school as "the cafe" - is a place

where students have a really wonderful, well-lit place to eat and hang out and for anyone walking down the sidewalk to see the lives of our students unfolding in real-time. And with that change came a change of name as well. We started calling it the café to attempt to signify the change in mindset the space represented. Every space - including what could have ‘just’ been a cafeteria - would be re-imagined as dynamic, collaborative, and public spaces that echoed what SLA and “School 2.0″ stand for (Lehmann, 2007).

I am also really interested in seeing the school's presentation spaces, classrooms, and the hallway "streetscapes," all of which are designed as spaces where students can move around, engage in creative processes, and where explanation, instruction, as well as hands-on, and creative work can all co-exist.

Needless to say, I can't wait to walk the halls of the Science Leadership Academy and interact with its staff and students.

See you there!

__________________________ References:

Lehmann, C. (2007). DesignShare: "Designing School 2.0: A Study of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy". Retrieved November 9, 2007, from http://www.designshare.com/index.php/articles/science-leadership-academy/

2007 EduBlog Awards

It is a great honour to be nominated again for the EduBlog Awards. I don't know who nominated this blog in two categories - Best Teacher Blog and Most Influential Post - but I would like to say that it is nice to see that, after three years, my thoughts and ideas are still relevant and of value to educators. When I first started blogging in February 2005 I wanted to create a place for thoughtful reflection, a place where I could use writing to think about my doctoral research and my classroom experiences. I never imagined that, almost three years later, I would be part of an international network of educators who not only seem to find value in what I write here but who also inspire, motivate, and engage me on a daily basis. It is thanks to you that I continue to grow as a researcher and an educator. You continue to challenge my preconceptions and do not allow me to remain complacent. But there is another group that also deserves to be recognized here - my students. Over the past three years, I have introduced three different grade eight classes to blogging. I cannot say that every single student enjoyed blogging, I cannot even say that every single one of them benefited from this innovative and unique approach. One thing, however, that I can state with certainty is that every single grade eight student who entered my classroom in the past three years has taught me one very important thing about both myself and teaching - the best teachers never stop learning.

This past year - the final year of my doctoral research - has been especially illuminating. It helped put into perspective some of the findings that I collected in the first year of my study. It was a time of reflection and a time of looking forward, a time when many of my initial observations in the grade eight blogosphere led to some important realizations, realizations that have completely transformed who I am as a teacher. Some of these moments of epiphany are documented here on this blog. This is one of them, and this one, which took months to develop and is especially valuable because it emerged from my own often uncertain practice, is nominated for the 2007 EduBlog Award in the Most Influential Post category. The fact that the ideas in this entry, although seemingly simple, took months to develop makes this nomination especially meaningful.

It is also a great honour to be in the same category with some of the entries that I have printed out after the first reading and gone back to on a number of occasions because they seemed to open yet another door, because they challenged and inspired me. These include:

Ben Wilkoff's The Ripe Environment Karl Fisch's Is it Okay to be a Technologically Illiterate Teacher? Kris Bradburn's How to Prevent Another Leonardo DaVinci

I am also honoured to be in the company of the following inspiring educators:

Clay Burrell Vicki Davis Graham Wegner

who, along with me, have been nominated in the Best Teacher Blog category. Their work has often made me ask that crucial question: "And what am I doing that's making a difference?" It's important to have people like that in one's RSS reader. Thank you for sharing your work!

As a relatively new resident of Second Life, I would also like to mention two people whose help and guidance have been invaluable in my journey as a Second Life resident, user, and researcher. Sean FitzGerald and Jo Kay have been nominated in the Best Educational Use of a Virtual World category. Jo's Second Life island, jokaydia, has already been host to a number of meaningful educational events (and will also host the 2007 EduBlog Award Ceremony!). Jo and Sean's Second Life in Education Wiki is a rich and indispensable resource for any educator interested in exploring Second Life. It is great to see that their work has been recognized.

This year's EduBlog awards have also made me aware of new voices from many different categories whose work has already been added to my RSS reader.

It's an honour to be in the company of educators who continue to reflect and grow. Let's keep in mind, however, that the nominees in this year's EduBlog Awards are just a small sampling of all the valuable blogs, wikis, and other resources that we continue to both produce and rely on as educators trying to make meaning of learning in the 21st century.

How to Grow a Blog

Last month, in preparation for my K12Online Conference presentation, I re-read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Good Business. Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. In it, he states that the experience of flow - when the person is totally immersed in an activity and genuinely enjoying the moment - comes from "the steps one takes toward attaining a goal, not from actually reaching it." He adds that:

People often miss the opportunity to enjoy what they do because they focus all their attention on the outcome, rather than savoring the steps along the way. Where does the pleasure in singing come from - finishing the song, or producing each note or phrase? ... To be overly concerned with the ultimate goal often interferes with performance. If a tennis player thinks only of winning the match, she won't be able to respond to her opponent's powerful serve ... our primary concern here is not with what constitutes a successful performance, but with the quality of experience during performance. If we agree that the bottom line of life is happiness, not success, then it makes perfect sense to say that it is the journey that counts, not reaching the destination.

In education, however, the product - the grade, the final draft, the test mark - still often takes precedence over the process of learning - the sense of personal journey without which the final destination is meaningless. What is even worse is that many of our students are very comfortable with that idea. To them, school is often about "playing the game." They follow along, raise hands, submit assignments, study for tests. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these activities as long as they do not impede their progress as independent thinkers, researchers, and writers. Unfortunately, most of the time, "playing the game" means following the rules that we've set up for the students. We bring in the hoops, and the students jump through them. It's an easy process for everyone involved.

In my classroom - a predominantly blogging classroom - things have to be different. I believe that it is my role as an educator to ensure that my students are given opportunities to grow as individuals, and are not treated as mere pupils who passively receive information. As a result, the traditional approach to teaching and learning, to assessment and evaluation, has to be modified. It is a difficult process for both the students and the teacher. It is a process in which the classroom becomes more of a studio where learners engage with concepts that they find interesting and personally relevant. It becomes a place where they are given opportunities to create their own networks and become experts in their chosen fields.

In order to create that classroom, however, I need to continue to tweak my classroom practice. The students need a different, more conversational, expressive, and individualized kind of support. They also need to be gradually eased into their new roles of independent researchers.

At the beginning of the year, I always talk to my students about "growing" their own blog. It is a challenging concept because, when they are first introduced to blogging, they are all under the impression that everything they write will be graded and that their blog is just an electronic version of their notebook or journal. So, when at the beginning of the year, I start talking about blogging and the steps that the students need to take to "grow" their own blog, they are always a bit confused and surprised - my words suggest a lot of freedom, and freedom, as we all know, is not something that students associate with school.

For two years, I struggled to verbally explain the concept to them, with varying results. This year, however, I had a visual tool.

How To Grow a Blog

I created it this past summer and could not wait to use it in class. When I finally used it last month, the results were encouraging. The students looked at it and, when I said "I'd like you to think about how you are going to grow your own blog," they knew exactly what I meant.

The diagram I created is intended to help them visualize their progress over the course of a school year. It assumes that blogging is not about posting an entry in response to a homework assignment but about engaging in writing that is personally relevant. The diagram helps students define their goals and ways of reaching them. It helps them realize that blogging is not about posting well thought-out entries, and that each entry does not need to present a definitive and complete view on a given topic. Rather, it helps them see that blogging is about engaging with ideas.

Blogs are perfect tools to encourage and assist students in cognitive engagement. Blogging is a process, a conversation. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the year, my students tend to see each blog entry as the equivalent of a well-composed paragraph response or even an essay. I admit, there is nothing wrong with producing well-written and well organized entries as long as the entry is not an end in itself, as long as the process of intellectual engagement does not end once the piece is posted. I want my students to understand that bloggers blog because they are on a journey, a quest, and that every entry is an opportunity to continue that journey.

So, when they see this handout, this planning sheet, the students realize that the academic year ahead of them is an opportunity to produce a body of work, to stay engaged, to use their time productively doing things they’re interested in as opposed to completing assignments for their teacher.

This planning sheet, called How to Grow a Blog, consists of three parts.

The first part refers to the blooming flower - the goal of any gardener or a serious blogger. This is the long-term goal. When I explain this first part, I say to my students that they should think about what they want their blog to represent at the end of the year. I tell them that they need a personal goal. I say that once they start blogging, they will continue to add to their blog thus creating a body of work. "What," I ask them, "do you want to see there right before you graduate? What do you want the visitors to your blog to think when they see it in June? What do you want to accomplish?"

How to Grow a Blog - The Goal

Keep in mind, this is not easy. Generally speaking, the only time students in grade eight think about long-term goals is when they worry about grades or getting into the high school programme of their choice. Engagement with ideas lasts only until the assigned deadline. Once the assignment is handed in, the engagement ends. Blogging is very different, of course, and the diagram helps them realize that.

Once they choose a personal goal, a topic that they want to pursue, I ask the students to fill in the bottom part, called "The Right Habitat." Here, the students have to think about the steps they need to take in order to create the right environment for their blogs.

How to Grow a Blog - The Right Habitat

This part asks them to think about the root system for their blog. Where are the nutrients going to come from? Where will I find nourishment as a thinker and researcher? This is an opportunity to consider the fact that in order to learn and engage with ideas, one needs a habitat that will support it, and that the best way to build just such a habitat is to find other people and resources that one can converse with. In other words, I want the students to learn that blogging is about initiating and sustaining conversations. So, I ask them, "Now that you know what you would like to research or document on your blog, where is the inspiration going to come from, where are your ideas going to come from? What kinds of resources are you going to include in your habitat to help you grow your blog and extend your thinking?"

So, having chosen their goals, the students look for online resources that will help them learn more about their chosen topics. This is a perfect opportunity for me to make it very clear that blogs are about learning. Once they choose their topics, I always ask them how much they already know about the topic. The answers vary, of course, but fairly quickly the students realize that they do not know much about the chosen topic, even if it is something they are very passionate about. And so, a discussion about blogging turns into a discussion about learning. "Where will you go online to learn more about your chosen topic?" I ask them, "Who will you interact with and learn from?" This is how they begin to build their networks.

How to Grow a Blog - Habits and Commitment

Finally, I give them time to consider habits and commitments - that's what the stem represents in my diagram. I want them to think about the kinds of habits that, in their opinion, will be necessary to accomplish their goals. If the goal is to produce a body of work on globalization, for example, then they need to ask themselves what is required of them, on a daily and weekly basis, to achieve that goal. This is a difficult part for them to fill out because it requires a certain degree of self-knowledge. If they want their blogs to bloom, then they must think about the steps they need to take every day to ensure that they are on track. They must also know themselves and decide on the steps they need to take to develop good habits.

I believe that the most effective part of this diagram is that it gives the students an opportunity to do some long-term planning, which is not an easy task because, as students, they are used to short-term goals, such as finishing tonight’s homework. At the same time, they have to think about the little steps, the daily activities and posts and where they will come from. They need to find the right habitat that will inform their work. They need to think about strategies and habits necessary to both start and continue their journey.

In short, the goal of using this handout is twofold: to help students plan and begin their journey, and to think about the habits they will need for that journey. I want them to understand that the most valuable part of blogging is the process of interacting with ideas and people, not producing finished assignments on assigned topics. This planning sheet helps them define their long-term goals but, at the same time, it also helps them see that blogging is a journey. I have already noticed that this handout and the instructional conversations that it initiates help the students realize that successful learning is not about submitting definitive pieces on assigned topics, but primarily about what Csikszentmihalyi calls "the quality of experience," a sense of meaningful immersion in one's pursuits.

The challenge, of course, is that the students perceive traditional school work as something that is safe, much safer than becoming an independent researcher. They often find comfort in the fact that as long as the questions are answered and the work handed in, they will continue to do well as students. Blogging, on the other hand, is initially a big unknown. There are no deadlines and no clear guidelines. After years of jumping through hoops, students are suddenly faced with a lot of freedom which they often find overwhelming. I've noticed that the planning sheet I developed can provide a solid support mechanism that many young bloggers need at the beginning of this journey. It's a good tool to use in order to start a process of conversational feedback and assessment.

Below, you will find some examples of how my students filled out their How to Grow a Blog planning sheets. Keep in mind that what these sheets represent is the start of their journey as researchers and writers. They provide me with an opportunity to engage students in meaningful conversations that can eventually lead to meaningful and long-term personal engagement on student blogs. Your feedback on this handout and the strategy behind it would be truly appreciated. If you are interested in using or modifying this planning sheet, please feel free to download it. If you do choose to use it, either in its original or modified form, please send me your feedback.

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