Tag Archives: professional development

From Pedagogy to Tech (and Back Again)

Since my first day on the job as a Digital Learning Specialist here in Boston, I’ve had a mantra. My colleagues know it, and it might annoy them sometimes (because they can usually hear me thinking it before it ever comes out of my mouth): it’s not about the tool

What does this mean? A few things:

  • Effective practices matter more than the tech tools you use to enact them
  • Goals for student learning matter more than getting devices into kids’ hands
  • How a teacher teaches matters more than the tech they use to teach
  • Development of strategic literacies matter more than knowing how to use a tool

Or to boil it down to basics, practice and pedagogy should always trump tools and technology. Teachers, school leaders, and all educators should think first about what their goals are for student learning — not about the tools available to them for teaching. Just because a chromebook cart sits in your school doesn’t mean you should use it every day. Just because your school has adopted Google Apps for Education doesn’t mean students should compose solely in Google Drive. And when learning about new technologies, understanding the tool isn’t nearly as important as understanding how teaching practice can benefit from (or be hindered by) its use.

This belief comes from my research and the research of many in the field of educational technology. In my observations of and conversations with teachers, I have found that teachers won’t adopt a new tool until they see a reason to do so — a reason that is transformative for their practice and that is tied into their existing goals and teaching methods. Other studies have found that teachers need to be introduced to a new tool “just in time” — in the moment that they want or need to use it — not “just in case” they happen to need the tool in the future.

Because this is my mantra, I try to design digital learning opportunities and resources in accordance with it. This means I loathe (yes, that is strong language — that’s why I chose it) creating how-to tutorials and linking teachers to how-to guides. I try to avoid listing links on websites to “cool new apps for (storytelling/writing/feedback/course management/quizzes/games/etc.).” Because it’s not about the tool. It’s about the practice. Instead, I (and my team) work to start with practice, and go from there — what to you want to do? what are your goals? what can this teaching approach do for you and your students? And from there — what are some apps that might work for you? Pedagogy first… then tools. 

I’ve tempered the mantra a bit this year, giving in to occasional moments when a “how-to” is simply the best and only way to go in the moment. I’ve also found that my approach is unrealistic for some educators, who will get “hooked” once they are using a particular tool. And this makes sense! I didn’t become addicted to video editing until I was playing around with iMovie. I didn’t become a fanatical (if novice) web designer until I built my first website in college. Through tool play, I learned to love technology — and from there, I built and honed my pedagogical approach to integrating technology. So maybe I have this backwards? Or maybe this relationship is dialogic…

A Google Drawing Brainstorm During the Writing Process

A Google Drawing Brainstorm During the Writing Process

And as I think about it more, of course it’s dialogic. Digital tools and teaching practices are mutually transformative, so it follows that learning about both should be a dialogic process. My objection comes in when new tools distract — when the shininess and newness of a new digital something attracts us, but also detracts from meaningful teaching and learning by making us forget, usually only temporarily, what we were trying to do in the first place.  Or when, in our obsession with being proficient users of a tool, we start worrying more about “how to use it” than about “why to use it.”

In professional development settings, this happens often. School leaders want their teachers to know “how to use” Google Drive, not necessarily why and when to use Google Drive. Teachers, too, want to know how to use Google Sites, Weebly, or WordPress, not how best to use sites to improve student learning and access to content. If I’m not careful, my job quickly becomes a training mission instead of a learning mission as I’m called upon to make sure educators across the district know how to use our tools… but who is teaching them when, why, or to what ends to use these tools?

I find myself in a space where I can’t avoid being a little bit tool-focused on a daily basis. In a spring series, my colleague and I covered four Google apps in four weeks of very tool-focused online and face-to-face workshops. In our Hangout Broadcasts, we’ve talked about (and shown how to use) specific tools, and when we do face-to-face workshops, we spend much of our time getting teachers oriented to a new tool… sometimes at the expense of discussion about what that tool might add to (or even subtract from) their practice. It seems inevitable, at times, that technology/tool will trump pedagogy/practice, but I refuse to give up the mantra.

However, I lack effective models of “good PD” looks like when practice is placed before tool — with the exception of work done by the National Writing Project and some comprehensive research studies (which are, on a team that features only two people in my position for an entire district, entirely unrealistic) to serve as models, I don’t know what “instructional technology district support” that places practice before tool looks like. But maybe, just maybe, it includes the following:

Collaborating with curriculum departments. This is key. TPACK tells us that content, pedagogy, and tech need to be intertwined. Common sense tells us that today’s disciplines — how we employ literacy and mathematical and scientific and historical knowledge in the real world — is changing by the day as new technologies transform our interactions with disciplinary content. Curriculum and technology are not, and should never again be, separate.

Eliminating lists of links. Stop it. Just stop it. Stop listing links on your websites. Stop, I said! Sure, the interconnectivity of the Internet is the super-coolest thing since sliced bread. But I’ve seen so many school websites with lists of resources that fail to address the why — the pedagogy — first and in the same breath as lists of new tools. Pedagogy separate from tool is not okay.

Striving for “just in time.” The one-shot workshop thing just isn’t cutting it, and yet I find myself doing it anyway. This is in part because I just can’t say no when a school leader asks for help getting their teachers to use technology more effectively and efficiently — of course I’ll help! But I’ve stopped walking in with much of an agenda. Instead, our team tries to walk in and figure out where everyone is, what they need to know right now, what is most important for them in this moment. This is a little scary — it means walking into a PD without much of (but maybe a little bit of) a plan. But it is consistent with research that shows that teachers are more likely to keep using a tool if they learn about it at exactly the right moment — right when they’re about to use it or need it.

I’ll keep adding to this list… in the meantime, tweet me (@lizhoman) with your thoughts.

 

 

Online PD: (Im)Possibilities

The more I work in this system, the less convinced I am that I like it.

Those were the words that came across the office at me a few days ago, as I worked with Ed — the other BPS Digital Learning Specialist — to build a course in BPSLearns, our online teaching and learning system. I echoed his sentiment. The more I tried to design in our Moodle-based platform, the less enamored with it I became.

I’ve since decided that the tension we were feeling in this moment had little to do with the system itself, and more to do with our own conceptual struggles about what “online PD” actually is. What it should look like. What’s possible in online PD, and what’s not. In this post, I hope to explore some of these tensions, using this as a space to engage in some reflection, and to invite ideas and reflections from others.

Meta-PD: A Bit of Context

The learning series we were working on at the moment was a self-paced, fully online series for BPS folks who might want to facilitate their own online PD using BPSLearns (our learning management system, or LMS). We wanted to design the series such that future facilitators would come away with a sense of how to “do online PD well.” In other words, we didn’t want to just hand someone an online course and say “GO!” without also providing some sense of how to “GO!… with purpose.”

The problem? We’re still learning how to “GO!… with purpose” ourselves. As we begin moving our own department’s PD into online and blended spaces (defining blended, btw, opens up a whole new can of worms for us), we’re still figuring out what we think “looks good” and “works well” when it comes to online learning. My PhD research had much to do with integrating technology into classroom work with students, with what good “blended” or “digitally enhanced” classroom practice might look like, and with how best to prepare teachers to integrate technology meaningfully into their classroom practice, but it really had nothing to do with online teacher learning.

Faced with the very “meta” task of designing online PD on how to design online PD, we were stuck and stymied, and a little frustrated. It was sort of like when you have to teach a concept that you’re not sure you have a firm grasp on yourself (English teacher friends, think of when you had to teach your now-favorite incredibly difficult literature text for the first time, or that grammar concept you’re still not sure you have a firm handle on).

The Tension: Can Good PD even be Entirely “Online?”

I don’t have an answer to that question, and I don’t think I ever will. However, this question is serving (at the moment) as a very productive one for me as I watch myself and our team learn how to work within an online system to create online learning experiences that are interactive and collaborative. We want our online courses to move beyond “resource repositories” and into digital learning experiences that harness the power of Web 2.0 technologies.

These technologies, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (along with many others) remind us, have created a “new ethos” of engagement and learning, promoting sharing and co-authorship over simple consumption and dissemination of content. Taken alongside what I have learned about “good PD” — that it is collaborative, it is connective, and it seeks to build communities of shared practice — it makes sense that digital technologies could extend the reach and capacity of such learning experiences for teachers.

In fact, that was the very premise of Chapter 4 of my dissertation: that those teachers whose practice was most innovative and connected were the same teachers who maintained extensive digital and face-to-face connections with educators beyond the walls of their schools. They blogged. They tweeted. They created web content. They composed and shared digital stories. But they also took master’s classes. Attended conferences. Laughed in the halls with their colleagues. Attended summer institutes. Had coffee with friends at other schools and institutions.

See, part of what makes the connectivity and collaboration in Web 2.0 spaces so powerful are those very human connections that are fostered within, through, and beyond them.

<Storytime>

It is the end of the day, and I have just arrived home. Gertrude (my weimaraner) greets me at the door, so excited about my return that she does the four-paw hop in circles around me. I drop my bag, feel the relief that comes with shedding the weight of my laptop at the end of the day, and strap the pup into her harness for her evening walk.

I make sure I have my phone with me, and as we walk, I turn to my Spotify app to see if anyone has shared any good new music with me. I follow my friend Aubrey, who can always be trusted to post good music.

The tunes ring out, and I check Facebook. My sister has posted a triumph from her first year as a first grade teacher. My best friend from high school has posted a picture of her new baby girl. My feed is littered with posts from teachers from Illinois to Michigan to Colorado and of course Boston, posting about their children, their trials, their joys.

The song changes, and I turn to Pinterest. My friend Erin has sent me a hysterical pin about graduate school. Some of the boards I follow include infographics related to digital citizenship, so I pin a few to my “digital learning” board for later reference. As Gertrude and I round the corner and trudge up the hill to my favorite spot, I shove my phone in my pocket just in time to look up and over the trees at the harbor.

</Storytime>

Social media is a major part of my life. Because my professional and personal networks are so intertwined online, I often learn and reflect in social media as I reconnect with old friends. I look forward to these moments in my day, catching up with my teacher friends as they post resources, interesting articles, or stories from their classrooms. I reflect on these moments when I ask myself, does meaningful professional learning — professional development, as loaded as that term may be — happen online? Of course it does.

A(n) (im?)Possible Task

I have been thinking for the past few weeks that I just need to figure out how to harness the power of these technologies in the online and blended PD we create, leveraging them to connect  teachers and enable collaboration, to create communities of teacher learners within online environments. But I’m starting to think I had it backwards. I think I need to harness the power of the communities that already exist, the connections that already exist, and use the technology to enrich these communities, to make them stronger, to allow teachers to share/create/compose/collaborate beyond the walls of their schools and the city limits of Boston.

I’m not sure what that looks like. Or how to help others do it. Or what this means for me, now, in a new job that seeks to move so much of that very human interaction into very unhuman spaces. Is this an impossible task? I don’t think so, mostly because I don’t believe in impossibility. But it is certainly a difficult one.

 

Reflect with me. Do you have good examples of online PD or stories about your own online learning as a teacher? Twitter: @lizhoman. Email: ehoman@bostonpublicschools.org.

 

 

 

Unspoken (But Necessary) Academic Skills, Part 1: Baking

One of the things I’m learning this semester: there are lots of things I never would have thought I needed to be good at as an academic that I need to be good at. That sentence was awkward. Put another way: this job requires expertise in more trades that I had previously anticipated.

This is part one in what (I hope) will be a series of posts over the next few months on skills they never tell you you’re going to learn while you’re in grad school trying to get a PhD. Other skills I’m contemplating: overcoming social anxiety, introducing oneself in one of twenty ways depending on who you’re meeting, being an exceedingly good listener, writing down one thing while listening to something else and thinking about something else, and so on. The list continues to grow.

Today’s post: Baking.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am decidedly NOT a baker. I am a cook. I love to cook. I may sound like I’m gloating, here, but seriously people, my food is good. I have worked at becoming good at cooking. I can braise. I can roast. I can sear. I can saute. I can broil. I can grill (though usually that’s Kristoff’s job, cuz either bugs are out there or it’s cold). I make some killer casseroles, and my mac n’ cheese is to die for.

But yesterday, I made these:

spritz sandwich cookies with homemade jam filling

spritz sandwich cookies with homemade jam filling

Eh? Eh? Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. And they tasted good, too. I made them for a few of the English teachers at my research site, who had a professional development day today to learn about using screen capture and course management software. They requested a day with the district tech guru to learn how to integrate these software in order to “flip,” or least ELA flip (cool blog on that here!), their classrooms. It was awesome. But that’s another post.

THIS post is about my baking. So far this semester, I have baked:

  • mini muffins. these were relatively successful.
  • caramels. these were unsuccessful. these were thrown away.
  • full-size muffins. these were sort of successful, but a little gooey.
  • these cookies. these were entirely successful.

Why am I doing all this baking? The short answer: people like food. And teachers who are famished at the end of the day really like food, especially good food. When I was a teacher, my stomach started growling at 2:30 on the dot. Sometimes a little earlier. At the end of the day, after snarfing down lunch in 15 minutes (because even if a teacher gets 25 minutes, she spends at least 15 of it getting other things done), you’re friggin hungry. So I want to bring people food. Both because I like feeding people (hence, my love of cooking) and because I want them to like me.

But you can’t cook for people when you’re doing things like visiting them in their classroom and thanking them for taking the time to tell you about their work. It’s a little weird to bring people your homemade tzatziki or hummus, even if your homemade tzatziki or hummus is awesome. It’s similarly odd to bring a tray of mac n’ cheese to a PD day.

I find it somewhat ironic that my husband is the baker of the family, and he works in a lab. Cells don’t care if you can make a killer homemade Reese’s peanut butter ice cream sandwich. Protein doesn’t get really excited when you bring in a three-layer cake covered in buttercream. (He actually makes these things, btw.) He’s also a cook — I shouldn’t misrepresent. But if one of us is more of a baker than the other, it’s him. I’m the one who works with people, and what can I make? A really killer pasta salad. Some awesome vinaigrette. Of course.

Anyway, I’m becoming a better baker — slowly but surely, and with a little help from my better baking half. He helped with the jam filling yesterday, firming up our homemade jam with some gelatin so that my cookies wouldn’t be a gooey mess. And at the request of a couple of the teachers who got to sample these suckers today, here’s the recipe (don’t worry, this isn’t turning into a food blog):

Spritz Cookie Sandwices

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 sticks butter
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp either butter flavor or almond extract
  • 3 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Cream butter and sugar, add egg, vanilla, butter/almond flavor, and combine. Add flour, baking powder, and salt (after sifting them together) until just combined.

Load cookies into a cookie press (or you might be able to roll them out and cut them, but they’ll be sticky! Cool batter first). Bake at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes, watching for them to brown around the bottom. Let cookies cool, then spread your favorite jam in the middle and sandwich together.

Enjoy. Or give to a bunch of teachers :)