Connections Between Scaffolding and Digital Portfolios

The work of Aida Walqui and other advocates for effective teaching of English learners stresses the importance of providing scaffolds for English learners. When educators provide the right kind of scaffold at the right time, students acquire language (and, more generally, knowledge). This way of thinking about how understanding (and language proficiency) is developed comes from the Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) initiative. The QTEL approach suggests that there are 6 kinds of scaffolds:

Bridging, in which students make a personal link between prior knowledge and new concepts

Contextualization, in which concepts are delivered via the senses (sounds, sights, smells, etc.)

Schema Building, in which students build on understanding to construct new knowledge

Metacognitive Development, in which learner autonomy is fostered by helping students assess and think about their own learning

Text Re-presentation, in which students are asked to display what they understand from one medium/mode of a text by re-presenting that understanding in another medium/mode (such as creating a visual based on what the student understood from a chapter in a science book)

Modeling, in which students get access to clear examples

Now, when I was at the QTEL Summer Institute in San Francisco a few months ago, I had digital portfolios on my mind. I was advocating that my school should implement digital portfolios on a wider scale. I am a big supporter of how digital portfolios can amplify student learning! It was pretty clear, though, that a significant portion of our school’s professional development time over the next couple of years was going to go toward helping staff members effectively teach English learners. We have over 800 English learners at my high school (and more every week!), so training in this area is incredibly appropriate. Still, I was looking for a way to link our school wide focus on English learners and my desire to tap into the learning benefits that digital portfolios can provide. As we reviewed the 6 types of scaffolds, I saw it clear as day: Digital portfolios can facilitate the implementation of the 6 types of scaffolds! I got so excited, I used a different color in my notes to remind me to come back to this idea in a blog post later:

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After a little more thinking, I realized that if I tried to show a connection between all 6 scaffolds and digital portfolios, it might read a little like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I didn’t want to force the issue inauthentically, but I still saw a clear connection between some of the scaffolds to help English learners acquire language (scaffolds for learners in general to acquire concepts through language) and work educators could be doing with students through digital portfolios. I concluded that digital portfolios can facilitate the implementation of at least 3 types of scaffolds: Metacognitive Development, Text Re-presentation, and Modeling:

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Metacognitive Development:

Thinking about thinking is vital to causing authentic, lasting learning for our students. I worry that teachers sometimes over emphasize “covering” or “getting through” content, rather than taking the time that learners need to clarify what they have learned, how they learned it, and determine where they need to go next with the concept. I understand the pressure that educators feel to get through content, but our primary goal should be to cause learning–and if that means we don’t cover everything we set out to cover then so be it.

One of the most valuable skills we can foster in our students is learning how to learn. When we have students document their learning process, demonstrate what they have learned, and assess what their digital portfolios actually show they know, then we are using digital portfolios to help students build metacognitive skills. Students creating pages on a website that are meant to prove how and what they learned is a metacognitive act.

I very much see this as the primary value of having students curate their own digital portfolios. Putting knowledge on display is great. Building digital communication skills is awesome. But the most important pedagogical value that digital portfolios provide is their ability to continuously facilitate metacognitive development among our learners.

Text Re-Presentation:

When students are able to present their understanding of a concept using a medium that is different from the source medium, that is text re-presentation. Students are re-presenting ideas in another format. screenshot-2016-10-30-at-4-46-39-pm

Implementing this scaffold means to give students learning tasks that ask them to re-present their understanding. So, if a student has to re-present their understanding of a concept that they heard about in a class lecture, why not have them do so by creating and posting a video about the concept on a page of their digital portfolio?

Digital portfolios offer many other ways that students can re-present ideas from source material. Students can blog about their personal learning/understanding related to the text, create visuals, create videos, create presentations, embed images of the learning process–text re-presentation can take on many forms.

A focus on digital portfolios as the way to assess student learning can facilitate the implementation of text re-presentation.

Modeling:

Giving students clear examples of how to demonstrate learning on digital portfolios becomes much easier when you can refer them to other students’ digital portfolios. I’ve listed modeling last because it will probably come last in your own implementation of digital portfolios–at least as far as this kind of modeling is concerned. Sure teachers can create student mock-ups of what they would like students to do on digital portfolios, but the more authentic models will come when students can see how other students incorporated their learning onto their websites in creative and innovative ways.

Of course, we’ll continue to expect original meaning-making from students. Seeing how last year’s students demonstrated their understanding of meiosis and mitosis doesn’t give this year’s students license to copy and paste. This is why it’s so critical that students see their digital portfolios as representative of their own personal learning story. But if seeing an explanation from last year’s students helps this year’s students develop their understanding, all the better.

Scaffolding student learning and implementing digital portfolios are not mutually exclusive ventures. We don’t have to decide between one and the other. Just as with all technology integration in the classroom, it should never be about the technology. This isn’t a blog post about technology. It’s not really a blog post about digital portfolios. It’s a blog post about learning and using the tools at our disposal to help students learn more deeply. My argument is simply that digital portfolios can facilitate some of the work that is most vital to educators:

  • Implement scaffolds as needed to help learners, especially English language learners
  • Encourage students to focus on the value of learning and their own learning process
  • Challenge students to assess for themselves what they really understand and what they might need more help with

 

Sources and References:

Couros, G. (2016, August 16). 7 Important Questions Before Implementing Digital Portfolios [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/6602

Ritchart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: how to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walqui, A. & van Lier L. (2010). Scaffolding the academic success of adolescent English language learners: a pedagogy of promise. San Francisco: WestEd.

Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors: Shared Responsibility and Mutual Respect

The staff at El Cajon Valley High School works extremely hard to give students the support they need, but providing all of the support that students need is a pretty daunting task. To help with this, we have a tradition of having Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors help out in the classroom. Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors mostly consist of upperclassmen who have expressed a desire to give back to the school community.

We have had students helping in classrooms for years at El Cajon Valley High School. When I was an English Language Development teacher at ECVHS, I enjoyed the help of some amazing multilingual Peer Tutors (many of them former ELD students of mine) who helped me provide the language support that my students needed. The Moderate to Severe Special Education Program has been relying on Peer Tutors for years to help students with special needs. And now we have a Teaching and Learning course, which trains students to be Peer Mentors to help students in a variety of learning situations.

20160915_084719As the librarian, I had the privilege of playing host to Liz Castagnera as she trained Peer Tutors to help students in the Moderate to Severe Special Education Program. Mrs. Castagnera is always looking for ways to improve how her Peer Tutors serve our students with special needs. Her training focused on the benefits of a philosophy of inclusion and acceptance, as well as the personal benefits being part of a community where we help each other.

20160915_101404Mrs. Castagnera has had her Peer Tutors use Digital Portfolios in the past to reflect on the different aspects of what it means to provide support to students with special needs. But as a person continuously looking for ways to improve, she worked to develop a sample portfolio in the new Google Sites to show Peer Tutors more clearly what was expected of them.

The thing I admire most about Mrs. Castagnera’s use of technology here is that the point of what she is doing is not the technology itself. The focus of this Peer Tutor training is on goal setting, communication, and documenting progress–technology is simply the tool her students will use to keep track of the work they do with students. And because students are developing their Digital Portfolios in this way, Peer Tutors will leave high school with documented evidence of volunteerism and work experience. And as these Peer Tutors apply to colleges and get started in careers, that documented evidence will be very valuable.

Speaking of Digital Portfolios, we are experimenting by having all 9th grade students in our Brave Adventure classes start Digital Portfolios in the new Google Sites. Students follow this sample, which includes links to a step-by-step guide by Grossmont Union High School District Digital Learning Coach, Reuben Hoffman (@reubenhoffman). As stated above, we have Peer Mentors as part of our Teaching and Learning Course. One example of these Peer Mentors helping our school is that they helped us with this Digital Portfolio roll-out. 20160906_132121The Teaching and Learning Peer Mentors were trained in how to create Digital Portfolios in the new Google Sites, then they were assigned to lead Brave Adventure classes in the site creation task. I was able to visit one of the classes during this roll-out, and it was impressive to see our Peer Mentors at work. The class I visited had a substitute teacher, but the Peer Mentors took over and made sure that all students in the class created their Digital Portfolios.

Our Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors are continuing a tradition of giving back to the ECV community. I’m so glad to be a part of a school culture that empowers students to be campus leaders, and I’m excited to see what happens this year as more students embrace leadership roles. We’re building a community of shared responsibility and mutual respect.

Keeping a PLN (and a PLC) Civil

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I began teaching at El Cajon Valley High School in 2007. As a relatively new teacher I was tasked with being the Professional Learning Community Team Lead for a team of English Language Development teachers. In order to prepare people in my position, all the PLC Team Leads at my school were given a copy of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities At Work.

6a00d8341c721253ef0120a5226c31970bAt that point in my career, I didn’t necessarily see myself as a leader. So, I appreciated having that book as a guide for how to develop effective PLCs. I remember slowly reading through the text throughout the year (I’m a slow reader and it’s a pretty thick book). The explanations and guides for how to run an effective PLC made a lot of sense to me. Yes, we should be learning together. Yes, we should be talking about how we instruct students and sharing our instructional experiments with each other. Yes, we should read some research together and discuss how to implement the best practices that we’re reading about. I saw all these great ideas for improving our ELD program.

Some of the improvements suggested by this text were readily adopted by my fellow PLC members, and some were opposed. I couldn’t understand the opposition at the time. I thought that if we were going to have an effective PLC and serve our students well, then we should implement as many of the ideas in this book as we could. Opposing the ideas in the book, refusing to even read about them, these behaviors seemed so anti-improvement, so anti-progress.

Believing that the ideas in the book represented improvement, I basically resorted to ideological campaigns fought in the email and PLC meeting battlefields. In my mind, I built myself up to be superior to any colleague who disagreed with the ideas I saw as so obviously beneficial. I emailed point-by-point rebuttals to their concerns. I tried using peer pressure to turn reluctant PLC members over to my “side.” I wrote off their educational experience as simply many years of doing things the wrong way.

I’ve since apologized to some of them, and I believe that the majority of the people I work with see me as someone who they appreciate working with, someone who is fair and helpful, but I am sure I permanently damaged my relationships with a few people at my school.

Teaching is such a personal thing. Educators’ beliefs about teaching are an extension of who we are as people. When the ideas about education I was attracted to came under attack, I felt attacked. So, I attacked back, not recognizing (for a long time) that I was hurting some of my colleagues. And I’ve found that when you hurt someone, they’re not too keen on trying any of your ideas. When you hurt a member of your PLN, the trust required in a learning community is damaged, and people stop learning from each other.

 

I’m not proud of how I acted during this time in my career, but I am proud that I was able to reflect on my behavior and recognize that I needed to change. I still have colleagues who have different educational philosophies than I do. I have colleagues who hold ideas that I see as detrimental to how humans learn. But I don’t feel the need to bully those colleagues into believing what I believe (as I did back when I was the PLC Team Lead). What good can come of that? None. I’ll still voice what I believe about how to improve our school. I want our school to improve, but I recognize that trusting each other enough to disagree with each other and still be productive together is one of the most powerful ways our school is going to improve.

So, keep your PLN (or PLC) civil. Learn from each other, and when you disagree, be sure to remember that it’s a conflict of ideas, not a conflict of people.

Share Your Ideas

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Please take a couple minutes to view this video:

This video is a pep talk to all those educators out there who doubt that they have good ideas to share. Participating in a professional learning community means more than simply connecting to resources and experts, it also means contributing your own ideas. I think many teachers shy away from sharing, thinking: my ideas aren’t good enough to share (as the video illustrates).

EDpuzzle- Teacher InstructionsI experienced something similar to the situation in the video: I started using @EDPuzzle, and I really liked it. I liked it so much, that I wanted to share it with others. To do this, I made a Google Slides presentation with instructions and screenshots for how to get started with EDPuzzle. Now, EDPuzzle has their own instructional tutorials on how to get started (and their instructions are better than mine). More than that, some of the screenshots and instructions in my presentation are a little outdated. Still, I made this presentation and sent it to my colleagues to show them how to get started with this instructional tool. I was also sure to set the sharing settings so that it was public on the web, just so it would be easier for others to see.

I thought nothing of this presentation for a long time, and then out of the blue I got emails from teachers out of my district–out of my state! They were asking for permission to use this presentation to help their own colleagues get started with EDPuzzle. Of course, I told them to go for it–make a copy and modify it for their needs. I even changed the title slide to include a link that makes a copy of the presentation (see above).

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I’ll admit, I felt proud that a presentation I made was being looked at (sought out) by educators I didn’t even know. It told me that the idea I had (to share this cool instructional tool and make it as easy as possible for others to get started with it) was valuable to others. It told me that my idea helped others.

But the part of this experience I really appreciates goes back to the idea in the video at the top of this post: This wasn’t some spectacular insight. This wasn’t an epiphany that would reshape the pedagogical world. This was just a “how to” presentation for getting started with a useful edtech tool. Still, by sharing I was able to contribute to more educators and more students than if I had decided to keep my ideas to myself.

I hope the non-sharers out there have a change of heart. It would be great to see more educators contributing their ideas so we can all better serve our students.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men…

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I have been a big believer in the power of digital portfolios for years. When I became the teacher librarian at El Cajon Valley High School (@ECVHS), I knew I wanted to advocate that we try to go more school wide with digital portfolios. I blogged a little to share the educational value of having students build digital portfolios to demonstrate understanding.

 

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click to view the “classic” Google Sites Digital Portfolio Template

I was so pumped to hit the ground running with digital portfolios, that I spent some time to put together an easy-to-copy digital portfolio template for students at my school. It was going to be so simple: students would visit the URL, hit “Use Template” and then they would have their very own skeleton of a digital portfolio to build up with evidence of learning over the years. Teachers would be able to get started with digital portfolios without really having to understand all the intricacies of how Google Sites worked. And let’s face it, “classic” Google Sites was pretty clunky. It was hard to use. But once you spent some time learning how to get it to do what you wanted it to do… it was still clunky, but in a way that Google Sites users understood. Plus, it had the advantage of integrating pretty well with the other Google Tools we were already using: Docs, Slides, Drawing, and more. So, I built the template and waited for the fall of 2016 to come so that I could help lead this digital portfolio experiment.

 

And then, after years of having few, if any, updates to Google Sites, Google announced the “new” Google Sites. Luckily, our Director of Instructional Technology, Dan McDowell (@danmcdowell), requested and received access for our district pretty early on. Now, because this happened over the summer, I was pretty sure I would be able to simply build up another template based on my earlier template. But I ran into two (I thought) significant hurdles:

  • the new Google Sites doesn’t offer blogging pages (yet)
  • the new Goolge Sites doesn’t allow sites to be published as templates (yet)

I see blogging as very valuable for educators wanting to take a risk on digital portfolios. And clicking a button in order to make a skeleton of a website is so easy. I was worried that students and teachers would see digital portfolios as less valuable and more difficult with the new Google Sites (and yes, we would be sticking with Google Sites because of how well it integrates with our other Google Tools). I emailed a few people and talked to Reuben Hoffman (@reubenhoffman), one of our district’s Digital Learning Coaches, about my worries. Everyone’s advice made sense: new Google Sites is the way to go because:

  1. it would get better over time,
  2. it is very easy to use (much easier than “classic” Google Sites),
  3. “classic” Google Sites may stop being supported after one year,
  4. we don’t want to have our students invest intellectually in a dying web tool, and
  5. our staff members are still excited about digital portfolios.

I stopped worrying about the problems now associated with the original plan and started getting excited again about going more school wide with digital portfolios.

 

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click to view the “new” Google Sites Student Sample/Guide

I used a lot of the content from my old template in order to create a “sample” in the new Google Sites. Students will be able to use this sample as a guide for developing their own websites. The original plan has changed; there is more uncertainty when it comes to how digital portfolios will play out at ECVHS–neither of those are bad things! I’m looking forward to seeing what opportunities this uncertain path forward will present.

 

QTEL Summer Institute

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The week of July 18th I was able to go to The Quality Teaching for English Learners Summer Institute in San Francisco with a team of educators from my school. I was connected to this professional development opportunity through Brent Enerva (@mrenerva). Brent was drawn to this institute as a science teacher working on effectively implementing Next Generation Science Standards with a high English learning population. However, he initially thought that the cost would be prohibitive (flight, hotel, registration would add up to about $4,000). Still, he asked our school site council, and not only was he approved, it was suggested that he bring a team of educators. To make a long story short, with the support of our school site council and our principal (@KimPattersonECV), Brent brought a team of five to this valuable (and expensive) learning opportunity.

20160719_151959One lesson from this experience is that it never hurts to ask when you see a valuable PD experience come along. I am very glad that I got to participate in the QTEL Summer Institute. I spent about 6 hours a day learning in my sessions, and then I spent time in the afternoons exploring San Francisco with colleagues while processing what we were learning.

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The institute was held in the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio. I was able to hear from icons of English learner instruction such as Aida Walqui and Kenji Hakuta. Our session leader gave us instruction on QTEL’s 3 moments approach to designing lessons for English learners: Preparing the learner, Interacting with the text, and Extending student learning. As a Trainer of Trainers in SDAIE, I was familiar with these concepts, but participating in an immersive training like this Summer Institute helped me internalize how keeping QTEL’s 3 moments in mind will ensure effective implementation of ELD standards. I look forward to bringing what I learned to future meetings and trainings with staff members this school year.


Take Aways

The most significant connections I made during this training were:

1. If learning, especially language learning, is social, then we should facilitate the kinds of interactions among students that promote language exchange.

2. ZPD! Is it bad that after 10 years of being an educator that I’m still growing in my understanding of Vygotsky’s concept? Before, I thought of ZPD as a magical realm in a student’s ability where he/she could still access a slightly more difficult task, like a step on a staircase that’s not too easy and not too hard to take. Now I understand ZPD, I believe, more accurately. The Zone of Proximal Development is the space in which all learning occurs. It is the zone in which a learner has ventured out of what is known and taken a risk to build new knowledge. This knowledge building path is something that, in order to be authentic and substantive learning, the learner must take on his/her own. This is why it is soooo much more meaningful to have learners “discover” concepts rather than simply having the teacher tell him/her the concept. In order for the learning to “stick,” the learner has to be the one to build the learning in his/her own mind (through things like quality interactions with peers within learning activities). It’s the teacher’s job to notice when and how a student is venturing into the ZPD and supporting that journey as needed through instructional scaffolds.

20160719_2027273. Instructional scaffolds! How appropriate that right across the street from my hotel, there were scaffolds set up! I had to snap a picture. Just as with ZPD, I feel like my understanding of what scaffolds are have changed due to this training. Before, I thought that instructional scaffolds were those meticulously pre-planned supports that I, as an educator, would put into place as part of a lesson in order to help students reach a high level of understanding. Now I understand instructional scaffolds to be:

  • temporary (I already knew that)
  • given to students as needed (I kind of knew that, but now I understand why)
  • based on the risks students make venturing into the ZPD (wow!)

That last point is what felt new to me. So, in order for any real learning to occur, a student must venture into the ZPD, take a risk, to build new knowledge. That step, that risk taking, must be based on something the student wants to do/learn. If the thing the student wants to do/learn is too difficult, that’s when the teacher adds scaffolds. With my misunderstanding of scaffolds, I was creating scaffolds for a path of learning that I predetermined students would take. That’s not how people learn. Instead, I should be providing scaffolds to help students with a learning path that they want to take. Put it this way: if a worker needs to get work done on a 4th story window of an east-facing wall, I shouldn’t be constructing scaffolds to a window on the 6th story of a south-facing wall. The worker doesn’t want to get there, so the scaffold is useless. I can hear the opposition to this idea: “But I want my student to learn X, not Y!” I get it! But if we don’t get our students to want to learn X, no scaffolds in the world are going to cause them to truly learn it. And until we figure out ways to get students to want to learn X, why not experiment a little and learn some Y?

 

Growing New Branches in my PLN

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As an educator, I agree with the people who say that the most valuable thing we can help students learn is: how to learn. With this in mind, I like to think that I’m the kind of person who can make connections to people and resources that will help me learn what I want (or need) to learn. This is essentially what we’re talking about when it comes to building a personal learning network. So, in the spirit of  reflecting on my learning process and the development of my PLN, I want to share a few things I’m currently learning about and how I’m learning them:

1. How to run a TED Ed Club

I first heard about TED Ed Clubs on Twitter and I thought, “That sounds cool–we should have one of those clubs at my school.” And then I didn’t do anything about it. A few months later, I saw a local middle school district announce on Twitter that they were putting on a TEDxKids event. I couldn’t register fast enough. I really do love the idea of empowering students to share their ideas, and I was eager to see what a middle school in my own back yard was doing with TED Ed Clubs. I was very impressed by the event and blogged about it here. I went to the same event this year (as well as another TEDx event). I also attended a couple presentations on TED Ed Clubs, including one by Liz Loether (the organizer of the TEDxKidsElCajon event I first attended). From there I finally took the step to sign up to be a club leader and I am in the middle of my very first cycle of helping students develop their talks. I am very new to this, but it’s easy to track how I grew my PLN to get me to where I am: First) I was attracted to cool things I saw on Twitter. Second) I attended an event related to that cool thing. Third) I attended a couple conference sessions teaching me how to do that cool thing I was learning about. Forth) I am trying it myself. There will be many steps beyond this, but I am where I am thanks to how PLNs work!

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2. The Raspberry Pi

I love what technology can do to amplify learning for students, and I am pretty good at learning how to use edtech tools, but I am very new to coding and building computers (I’m an English major!). But I run a library now, and that library has a makerspace. Our retiring librarian bought a Raspberry Pi for students to tinker with in the makerspace. That Raspberry Pi kind of just collected dust all year. I didn’t know what to do with it. I had kind of heard you could do cool things with a Raspberry Pi, but I just didn’t know and I was so busy learning other library stuff, I just ignored the Raspberry Pi for a while. Then I attended a session at the Computer Using Educators conference on the Raspberry Pi. The presenter framed the Raspberry Pi in a way that I valued: teach planning, teach problem solving, encourage creativity, foster perseverance. I was sold. I asked my vice principal for some money to buy more Raspberry Pis. He said yes! I advertised a Raspberry Pi Club to students. They showed up! I told them before we started that I had no idea what I was doing and that we would all have to learn about this thing together. I think they really liked the idea of the teacher not knowing all the answers. The situation I’m in with my Raspberry Pi Club members makes students much more authentic members of my PLN. We’re learning together. I’m excited to see what we do with our Pis in the fall!

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3. 3D Printing

As I wrote above, my library has a makerspace. I’m thankful that the previous librarian at my school was forward thinking enough to leave me with a very well developed makerspace. To make a long story short, I was able to order a 3D printer for my library’s makerspace! This is cutting edge maker-stuff here! And what did I know about 3D printing when I ordered the 3D printer? Almost nothing! But I couldn’t pass up on the chance to get a 3D printer for my makerspace, so I moved forward. Now I’m watching YouTube videos and reading through the manual that came with the printer. I received it the last week of the school year, so I have a few weeks before school starts in August. I hope to develop a student-friendly how-to guide for students to use the 3D printer.

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So there is a little insight into 3 things that I’m currently learning about. I look forward to developing my PLN to further these and other learning goals. Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed, like I’m trying to learn too many things at once, but I feel very fortunate that I have access to learn about the things that interest me.

Leaning on the Experts

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One of the first “libraryish” things I did after getting the teacher librarian position at my school was to attend an information literacy workshop put on by California State University San Marcos librarians. The presenters offered to deliver an information literacy workshop to all the librarians in my district, so we jumped at that opportunity.

The timing was perfect. Our district librarians were in the midst of developing district-wide research practices for each of us to deliver to our individual school sites. And as we made decisions about what skills to focus on, we had these CSUSM librarians to guide us. So far, it has been a match made in heaven and I am very thankful for the work CSUSM is doing with local school districts.

Now, as a way to deliver what we are learning about research practices to our school sites, all the librarians in our district are working together to build this Research Toolkit (work in progress!). I am co-presenting this toolkit next week with my librarian colleague Stephanie Macceca, but the creation and organization of this website (and the work it represents) was shared among all nine of our district librarians.

Here is what this process is making me realize about my professional learning network: I am far from the smartest, most capable person in the network of librarians I belong to. I don’t mean to come off as too egotistical, but I’m used to being near the head of the group when it comes to the different subjects my personal learning network is dealing with:

  • Developing literacy? I’m on it.
  • Integrating technology to amplify learning? I’m ready to train others!
  • Developing prompts and assessments? You’re talking my language!

I’m used to catching on quickly and (if necessary) doing a lot of the heavy lifting. But this first big project with my fellow librarians is reminding me that I have a lot to learn, and I can learn from the amazing colleagues I work with. I don’t have to be near the front of the pack in all areas of my PLN. I’ll admit, I kind of like being near the front of the pack and helping others catch up. But there’s no way to sugar coat it: I am a novice in the librarian world.

As I’ve worked with the librarians in my district to build the Research Toolkit, it has become abundantly clear that I could NEVER have done this on my own. I cringe a little remembering telling a fellow librarian: “I’ve got time this summer–I may just build the whole website myself!” I made that comment in a state of ignorant hubris. What made me think I could, on my own, develop this research resource for use across the entire district? The website we’re building together is so much better than what I could have done on my own.

I’m very glad for this experience. Without experiences like these, I worry that I would become the kind of person who feels like an expert at everything–the kind of person who thinks others should look to to learn from, but who doesn’t need to learn much from others. I would hate to become that kind of person. Of course, I don’t want to feel completely inept and ineffective, but I do hope to always stay in touch with the ability to be vulnerable and admit that I don’t know and that I need help.

Finding Connections: Sometimes it Takes a While

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For a lot of my teaching career, I was the kind of team member who listened to other peoples’ good ideas and supported them. I just wasn’t really coming up with anything new to add to the pedagogical conversation. My colleagues were already sharing such great ideas, that I had plenty to do to help make their ideas a success. Ideas like:

  • English learners should be developing their cognitive academic language proficiency
  • Let’s share our ideas on a website that we build together
  • Let’s read research to inform our instruction
  • Let’s ask local colleges for advice for how to prepare our students for their courses

Again, there were plenty of high quality ideas to support–and it took work to implement these ideas! It wasn’t until I was finishing up my masters in education that I came across an idea I hadn’t heard my colleagues talking about. I completed my action research project on formative assessments (specifically, how we can use weekly formative assessments to improve writing among English learners). I read from Reeves and DuFour (2 of them!) and Ainsworth and Marzano, and along the way I got the impression that the way I did grades was not ideal for learning. In fact, based on what I was reading, the way a lot of my colleagues did grades was not ideal for learning. I finished my research project/presentation on formative assessments, but what stuck with me was the issue of grading.

So, I read more and I watched videos. I found some great blog posts by Shawn Cornally and I was inspired by the ideas shared by Rick Wormeli on YouTube. Point after point I found myself agreeing with sources I found in books and online. I now had this idea that I thought was GREAT, and I wanted to bring it to my fellow English teachers. I presented this Prezi at a department meeting (I even made it into an exhilarating 22 minute video) with the aim to revolutionize how we grade in order to promote more learning. The reception to this idea was lukewarm. I was able to get the department to agree to some changes to our collective grading practices, but not others. It was clear that no one in my immediate professional learning network (the teachers in my department) was very passionate about this idea that was influencing me and my practice so significantly.

I made some pretty big changes to how I grade, but in the spirit of developing common practices, I didn’t fully run with standards based grading because I felt like I didn’t have many other teachers in my department willing to go along for the ride.

Fast forward to a few years later. I was at a Google Apps for Education conference, and I was stopped in the hall by Natalie Priester. She said something to the effect of: “You’re Anthony Devine. You posted some stuff online about standards based grading, right?” Now, this made quite an impression on me because I hardly expect anyone to remember or remark upon anything I post online (except that my mom is always sure to “like” the pictures I post of my kids to Facebook). But Natalie basically ran with the idea of standards based grading (I think she went well beyond what I’ve done with it). She mentioned coming across my video (linked above) early on in her development of standards based grading practices. She sent me some rubrics that she developed and other materials she made based (in part) on the explanation of standards based grading that I cobbled together from my research.

This interest got me to start thinking again about advocating openly for some changes to the way teachers produce student grades. It took a while, but after experimenting with my grading practices, I wrote this little post to help explain my grading practices to students and parents. And based on that post, I presented earlier this year at a local conference on using our a 4 point grade scale in our electronic grade book (Infinite Campus). In attendance at that session were staff members from an experimental high school within my own district where EVERYONE was giving proficiency grading a try. I loved talking with them about the ins and outs of implementing proficiency/standards based grading in a “traditional” grading world.

One of the outcomes from that presentation was that a colleague of mine who teaches math at that experimental high school, Melanie Ruiz, approached me to co-present on proficiency grading practices this summer. We’re finishing up this website as our presentation tool and our plan is to get teachers to reexamine their grading practices and to adopt some practices that will encourage and value learning more than “traditional” grading practices do.

That’s where I am with this journey with this one idea. And while it’s definitely a story about sticking to an idea that I think is good, it’s also about the fact that finding the people who will connect to an idea with you can take time. My personal learning network did not necessarily gravitate toward supporting this idea at first. That doesn’t mean I abandoned that network! It also doesn’t mean I abandoned the idea. Slowly, over time, I was fortunate enough to add to my network other educators I admire who agree that this idea is a good idea.

In summary, lessons learned from this situation:

  • If you have a good idea, but not many in your immediate PLN agree, stick with it! You may find people later who appreciate your crazy, innovative ideas.
  • Go to conferences! Whether attending sessions or presenting sessions, conferences give you the chance to make personal connections to educators in other schools and districts (and they probably have some great ideas to share).
  • Share your ideas. You may think what you have to say won’t add anything all that great to the conversation, but you’re just wrong! You never know who will latch on to the ideas you have to share. And you never know when you may decide to revisit your old ideas to share again or modify. Just look at this post. The things I’ve linked here go back to 2012 (and that action research project I mentioned was from 2009). Share–join the conversation!

Are you encouraging students to shelter knowledge, or share it?

As teachers, we’ve got important things to do. We need to develop lessons, deliver those lessons, assess student learning, and provide quality feedback. In reality, we do a lot more than that. One thing we may struggle with, though, is designing quality groupwork. But that’s okay, right? I mean, we have a lot to cover–we’ve got enough to do as it is!

Consider this situation when thinking about whether or not we should spend more time emphasizing groupwork with our students:

A student recently visited me in the library because she heard a rumor that I know how WeVideo works. She wanted to know how to layer sound tracks and change the volume of her video as it played. I showed her what I knew and she applied what she learned to her video. Then, and this is the important part, she turned to her friend and said: “Okay, let’s not tell ANYONE else in class about this!”

Woah! Where did that come from? I asked her why she wouldn’t share what she learned with her classmates, and she had clear reasons:

I want to have the highest grade in class.

If I tell other people how to make their videos better, they might get a higher grade than me.

The student’s thinking is pretty attractive to our culture. We want people to be competitive. We want people to want to be the best, right?

Let’s pretend that was the end of the conversation. This student would go back to class. She would show her video. Students would be pretty impressed that she figured out how to edit the sound in her video. She would have produced one of the best videos in class. A few other students might have good videos, too.

But what if the teacher had placed more emphasis on cooperative learning? What if students knew that one of the primary goals of this activity wasn’t that a small number of students would produce good videos, but that the class would work together and learn from each other in order for everyone to create good videos?

What if that student, after learning her new information about WeVideo, had turned to her friend and said: “Okay, let’s run back to class and tell EVERYONE how to do this.”?

Would we lament that this student was diminishing her own accomplishments by freely sharing what she learned? Would we worry that she was setting herself up for failure in a competitive world? I don’t think most of us would. I think many of us would recognize the value that she was bringing to our learning environment? I think we would appreciate seeing a class full of videos that were better, because one student shared what she learned with others.

Share or ShelterSharing her inside information may run counter to some of our cultural values, but it’s right in line with what we value most as teachers: learning. As we give students group assignments, let’s stress the value of sharing learning and helping each other solve problems.

How are the problems our society faces going to be solved? By sheltering learning to maintain a competitive edge, or by sharing learning to make our world better for everyone?