Monday, September 26, 2011

Twitter Teaching

In October, I will be presenting three times at the ECOO (Educational Computing Organization of Ontario) conference. One of my sessions is about creating a positive digital footprint "without putting your foot in it". As part of my preparation work for this workshop, I re-read the OCT (Ontario College of Teachers) Professional Advisory bulletin on the Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media. It's a very serious and grim document, and the tone suggested that educators not use social media. I then read the June 2011 issue of Professionally Speaking and followed their link to see their OCT video. I was much happier with the video and the irony that they were using social media to talk/caution about social media wasn't lost on me.

The tone of this video is a lot more positive to me than the booklet. I was also impressed because I knew one of the featured teachers on the video - Andrew is a teacher-librarian at Joyce Public School in the TDSB. I wanted to reflect in today's blog post about my most recent experiences with Twitter and my students.

I do not allow my students to friend me on Facebook, but I do allow them to follow my Twitter account. Why the difference? Twitter is a micro-blogging site that is most effective when tweets are public, and I chose early on to use my personal Twitter account as a means for professional development and dialogue. The posts I make on Twitter are things I would say in the classroom. Once I began to follow students, and them me, I discovered a couple of things.

1) Twitter is a great place to" teach" real-life lessons in authentic circumstances.

I've conducted lessons using the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada resources for youth and with other tools but the most effective way to reach my students is as they are conducting themselves online. The students were talking about the various boyfriends and girlfriends using Twitter. I sent a tweet reminding them that they were having this conversation publicly and asked them if they were sure they wanted to continue it there. Some laughed it off but I did notice that some started to mention to the others to DM (direct message) each other or take the conversation to MSN.

Some of my students are also a bit cavalier about what they say about others online. One student used a slur against his cousin and another student's complaint about homework veered towards criticizing the teacher. Mentioning to the students - either in person on through a tweet - in a non-judgemental way that they needed to exercise caution in how they phrase things. The common phrase "I'm going to kill so-and-so" takes on larger significance when said online and when I saw that in a tweet, I had to explain that jokes of that sort don't translate well through a computer.

2) Twitter makes collaborative problem solving do-able.

This past weekend, I was going over the library helper application forms. I wanted to make my decision by Monday so I could begin training the new assistants. Two of my students realized that they had forgotten to submit their forms. They tweeted me about their dilemma and I sympathized because the library was closed on Friday for a meeting, I was hard to find, and they had other club meetings after school, but I still wanted to be firm about my Monday decision. Another student recommended scanning the form and emailing it to me - would I accept it on the weekend? I thought that was a really creative compromise and I agreed. The students then shared a flurry of tweets experimenting together. Instead of scanning the paper, they took photos of it with their iPhones and emailed it to me. They checked that I had received it via Twitter.

Another wise and impressive use of Twitter came from a grade 8 student that saw my tweet about the school board summer writing contest. The prize was a laptop and he was really keen to win it. After he sent his entry, he was worried that he had some grammatical errors and tweeted me for revision help. We exchanged a couple of emails tweaking his entry and he re-sent it. Tweets were also used for encouragement and support. Although he didn't win, I was really proud of how he used Twitter to further his writing. I think he liked the public praise via Twitter as well.

Many of the students in my school that use Twitter have more posts logged than I do by far. That's because they use Twitter like an instant messaging tool, such as MSN. Thank goodness Tweet Deck saved me from the flood of tweets that were just meant for a couple of people - inside jokes, questions about homework, and such. In a way, I feel like I'm like the dog Nana in the story Peter Pan: keeping an eye out for the kids and their safety as they explore the wonders of Neverland/Twitterland. I can't stop them completely from making mistakes, but I can bark, or wag my tail, and help them where I can. I'll continue to abide by the OCT's advisory - "maintaining professional boundaries in all forms of communication, technology-related or not, is vital to maintaining the public trust and appropriate professional relationships with students" - and/but I'll continue to use social media because it helps us all learn, teachers and students.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Loose the reins - let the volunteers do their stuff!

I am the luckiest teacher-librarian in the world! I have a fantastic group of dedicated volunteers that come to my school library to help out. I think the last time I spent a huge amount of time shelving books was when Global TV asked me to do some for filming purposes, because between my student library team members, adult assistants and high school helpers, I usually don't need to complete it. The thing is, volunteers shouldn't be considered free labour to be used only according to the teacher-librarian's whims. There were two examples last week where I found that, by loosing the reins of control in the library and allowing volunteers to make significant changes that they initiate, everyone benefits.

A.L. is a grade ten student that used to attend our elementary school. He is absolutely AMAZING. He teaches me so much and has a great combination of a strong work ethic and creative thought processes. He's one of the people that worked with me on improving our school library website - I already wrote about him in this blog here. I really appreciate the fact that I don't have to tell him what to do when he enters the library - he evaluates the condition of the library and responds appropriately. This week, he was tired of our messy graphic novel collection space. We have one of the largest elementary school graphic novel collections in our board, I suspect, but we don't have adequate storage space. I've ordered new shelves but they haven't come in yet, and in the meantime I've been using a hodge-podge of tables, old wire spinners and racks. It was just chaos, with books piled everywhere and falling onto the floor. A.L. saw that we had some space in the fiction section because we weeded our chapter books last year. He shifted some book over and cleared up three sections. He then moved series with many titles over to the fiction shelves to temporarily allieve some of the congestion in the comic area. We were able to get rid of the tables and it's now so much more manageable. I don't think I would have done what he did but it works well and even spreads out the human crowding when students go searching for graphic novels.

P.M. is the mother of another teacher-librarian in my board. P.M. lives in our neighbourhood and is recently retired; she offered her services to the school library and I happily accepted. She is marvelous at what she does and the library has never been tidier. One day, as she was working on the well-used everybody book section and she mentioned an idea she had for making paperbook picture books easier to find. In her daughter's school library, she has her paperback books stored in bins located near the hardcover versions. I had used this technique in my previous school libraries but never considered doing it here. She pointed out that paperback books get lost, even when stored among other paperback books in their section, and they get damaged on the shelf. She even offered to buy the bins and label them. I had some money in the school library "pot" and so I gave her some of the funds to purchase the bins.

The roles of a teacher-librarian are three-fold: instruction, management, and leadership. In a Learning Commons, educators need to take a flexible and responsive approach to helping schools learn collaboratively. That means letting go of the notion that the school library is "your space" in which you are the king or queen of the domain. I'm not insulted by the recommendations for change my volunteers bring to the table and the suggestions they make create a place that is easier for all users to manage. Even though last year, my shared governing style led one primary student to exclaim "Mrs. Mali, you don't do anything!", I know that together we are able to achieve more. This coming week, the book fair commences at my school, thanks to the dedication of another volunteer of mine - my mother. We talked on the phone about some new ideas; she'll handle all the sales so that I can continue teaching the classes I have. I'll help her count up at the end of the day and select books for our collection based on our earnings, but I'll let her do her stuff - something she's been doing in school libraries since I was in junior kindergarten!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The first week - and those who don't go

The first week of school has flown by. I am going to work hard at actually recording my reflections more often, both on the blog and on paper in my day book /lesson plans), and there are lots of things that I can reflect upon, like:
  • the students taking the initiative to ask me to be the student council rep (I was the fourth teacher they approached. I know I won't be able to do it all by myself and I probably am going to have to choose between student council and yearbook. How do you choose?)
  • the kindergartens taking charge in their second drama-dance lesson with me (They punched my life-sized Grinch in the face because he was sitting in my rocking chair, and when I couldn't find the book I was going to read, they said that the Grinch took it and wouldn't give it back unless we all danced. We danced but I still couldn't find the book so instead I "winged it" with an activity on playing with toys and finding the "right voice" for them that was much more successful than the original plan.)
  • students already "invading" the library to read books and do homework together with their friends, even though book exchange officially begins Monday
Instead of expanding on any of those thoughts, I wanted to spend time considering those kids who chose not to leave home to go to school that first week ... because they are being home-schooled. Be forewarned that the opinions expressed here are those of the writer (me) and do not necessarily reflect those of my school or school board. Heck, they may not even reflect rational thought with a fully educated grasp of the issue. Still, when has that ever stopped someone on the Internet from spouting off?

I have to admit it - I have had (and probably still have) a bit of a bias against families that choose not to enroll their children in either private or public schools. I felt it was like an insult to me and other teachers - "we don't need you, we can do this ourselves". I also worried that it undermined public education and the funds that go to support it. Why spend so much of the provincial budget on something regular folks can do on their own? I wondered how it would be possible for home-schooled children to have similarly enriching learning experiences without a large group of peers, a fully equipped gym or a certified music teacher. Most of the people I knew that chose the home-school route did so because their particular religion clashed a bit with mainstream education or because their child/ren has special education needs that were neglected by their local schools. A few years back, one of my favourite kindergarten students, a clever, highly intelligent young girl, left our school because her parents decided she would get more out of learning via home school - I felt disappointed, because she was such a delight to converse with and the other students and I would be denied her company. 

Recently, I've reconnected with that girl's parents. They are still fantastic people - wise, fascinating to talk to, witty and super-nice. Their girl is thriving, not suffering, by getting her education at home. I still miss getting to learn from her - she taught me a great lesson about "appropriate books" and individual children when she was in JK - but I fear she might've been bored in class if she were still with us. That's not a knock against our wonderful school staff. It's just that, for the first time, I could agree with a home-schooling decision.

Melanie McBride, in a different context, has recommended that people "go to the places that scare them" and try/read/do things they wouldn't usually try/read/do. For me, subscribing to this blog is one of those out-of-character gestures. The Innovative Educator blog writes a lot about "unschooling" and is a big supporter of it. Sometimes I read the posts and I get angry - is school and the school system such a horrible, terrible, worthless monstrosity of a creature? I realize my reaction occurs because I'm a teacher and I have a lot of personal identity tied up with schools. My own children attend public school in a different school board than I work in and I do not consider myself an inferior parent because I choose to send my children to school instead of instructing them myself. Occasionally, there are posts that make me think instead of react and those are the ones that remind me why I still subscribe to the blog. Maybe it's as my mother says: "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar".

So, although I still sigh a bit when I hear about people opting out of public education, I think my hard stance is softening a bit. I complain about the school system and I'm not ready to give up on it yet, but I'm becoming more open minded about the choices people make for their children's education.

Monday, September 5, 2011

If school were like summer swimming lessons

School's about to begin and there are a lot of inspirational start-of-the-year articles out there on the blogosphere. I'm approaching this year much like my own children. My daughter is eager and excited. She wants to get back to learning new things and seeing old friends. My son is anxious and apprehensive. He will miss the freedom and relaxation that summer brought. I feel both ways. This is my fifteenth year teaching (happy anniversary to me!) but every summer I get those "school dreams" in late August - the ones that show that I worry about the start of school just as some students do.

Ideally, I'd like things to be like the swimming lessons my son took this summer.

During our holiday, my family and I went to Wasaga Beach. While we were there, I noticed that my son really enjoyed the water. If waves tried to push him over, he'd laugh. If water got in his face, he'd shake his head and go right back to playing. I wanted to keep him at arms' length from me but he kept straying away, exploring the bay further. Maybe this is a good time to consider swimming lessons, I thought to myself.

I spoke with a dear friend who is both a fellow teacher and mother. She told me about the private instructor her boys see during the summer. I emailed him and we arranged to give it a try. My son does not participate much in organized extra-curricular activities. We've tried gymnastics and sports in the past and he's participated but never asked to return or shown any enthusiasm for any of the clubs or teams. He showed a bit of concern when we drove up to Ryan's house in a quiet residential neighbourhood ("it's in a house?") but his swim coach was an absolute dream come true and perfect for my boy.

Swimming lessons were twice a week around noon. Ryan was patient and positive. I stayed during the lessons; sometimes I'd read and sometimes I'd watch. It was delightful to hear my son chatting with his teacher and laughing out loud because he was having such a good time. It was amazing to see how his teacher scaffolded the tasks, praising him when he did it correctly, encouraging him when his energy flagged, and describing exactly what he needed to do to improve his bubble-blowing technique. My boy never whined when it was time to go to lessons. Near the final days of summer, my family and I took another trip, this time to Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls, home of a huge water park. My son practiced his bubbles and his "basketball" float while we were in the pool and promised to teach me some of the things Ryan had taught him ("but you need to get goggles like me, Mom" he instructed me).

After the final lesson, Ryan gave me a written description of what my son was doing in the pool. There was no passing or failing, just an account of the things he learned, the things he needed to do to continue getting better, and some suggestions. None of the things his swim coach wrote in the letter was a surprise, as my husband and I both had ample opportunity to see for ourselves. Then, Ryan gave my son a medal for all he had accomplished in his one month series of lessons. Peter wore that medal around his neck all day and we promised we'd pin it to his door like his sister's horse-riding and masquerade competition ribbons.

As I re-read my description, there are so many elements that I would like to see or implement as part of "regular school". Some are silly or wishful thinking, like just going twice a week, attending because you are interested and not required, or having one-on-one instruction. Some aren't possible the way things work in "real life", like watching your own children take class regularly or ignoring grades on a "report card". Many things, however, are do-able with the right attitude. I'll try my best to make this school year just like my son's swimming lessons - a truly positive learning experience - and I hope my children's classroom teachers will do the same.