A Look at Ning

There is a great deal of research which points to the benefits to a group when the members have the opportunity to engage in another level of collaboration beyond the face to face meeting. Positive results can be achieved if the members have a common purpose and clear goals. The availability of Ning can be a wonderful opportunity for creating on online community. Ning is an online platform for people to create their own social networks, which is a way for people to connect and collaborate together, working toward the same goals but perhaps different contexts. For example, administration can implement a Ning when they are looking for ways to network and collaborate across all schools in a large district. Collaboration in a professional learning community is one of the essential features of this online tool.

The value of the tool is only as good as the participants make it. Members will be compelled to participate when there is good information available that will help them do their job better or consistent interaction such as comments to a blog post or responses to a forum post. In order to really understand it’s value, members shouldn’t view it as “just another thing to do”, but as an extension of what’s already being done. When groups are already meeting face to face on a regular basis, specific goals emerge and follow up becomes important. That’s when the asynchronous nature of communication can really enhance the development of ideas and making plans for follow up.

This tool is not without it’s issues, although the issues are not so disruptive as to discourage the users from participating. First of all, it’s important to note that Ning is not Facebook, but it’s open to any group of people, not just educators. Some content or subject matter may be offensive to some. In addition, Ning is open to spam in the form of unwelcome requests for membership from people who are trying to gain exposure for commercial purposes. Access to the content and membership can be carefully controlled by the privacy settings, invitation only, and the ability to moderate by the Ning organizer. Finally, unless the organizer pays for premium service, Ning includes Google ads on the right column of the page. Some find the ads distracting.

Check out these rich communities that utilize Ning to collaborate with educators all over the world that have been set up by an organizer to share resources or help facilitate support for it’s members to enhance their teaching practices:
Smartboard Revolution – share tips and resources on using interactive whiteboards in the classroom
ISTE Commnity – The International Society for Technology in Education organizes this site for it’s members to collaborate
Teacher Librarian Network – developed for teachers and school library staff
The English Companion – very active community of English teachers who are there to help others
Classroom 2.0 – extremely large group of teachers who interested in using technology in the classroom, a great place for beginners
Fireside Learning – an opportunity for anyone to reflect on teaching practices and anything about education
Gifted Education – a community of teachers who are intereted in helping each other when working with gifted students
Art Education 2.0 – a global community of teachers who use Ning to facilitate the use of new technologies in Art class

A Leader You Should Know

In a recent blog post, Dr. Scott McLeod put out an appeal for bloggers in the educational technology world to write about leadership. As I reflect on the posts of others and examine what it means to be a leader, I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce you to my dear friend and mentor, Sr. Mary Therese Freymann, BVM. Sr. Mary Therese has been in education since 1955 – most of that time teaching 8th graders. (Anyone who can teach 8th graders for over 30 years has got to be great, right?) She’s currently “retired”, which is a ridiculous term for her since at least 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year she works with inner city schools – writing grants, organizing and facilitating professional development, helping the Archdiocese of Chicago implement their technology plan and pretty much doing every thing she can to make sure that students in her schools have the resources they need to be prepared to live and work in the 21st century. I’m quite certain that she’s spending at least a few weeks this summer imaging machines (she’s on a Mac, by the way). She is one hard-working lady. By the way, her accomplishments include a ISTE’s Making it Happen Award, complete with Pink Jacket (not the one she’s wearing here)!

She has a tremendous capacity to persist under the most difficult circumstances and she remains positive and enthusiastic (not to mention she possesses a wicked sense of humor). She is the epitome of a life-long learner. In fact, she just waits for her teachers to say, “I’m too old to learn this stuff,” so she can remind them to take a good look at her and “do the math”.

I’ve known Sr. Mary Therese since I began my position as a technology coordinator for a large Catholic School in suburban Chicago around 8 years ago. I can’t remember exactly our first meeting but I’m pretty sure I met her at an ICE-COLD meeting. I do remember that soon after our first meeting she convinced me to take on the role of President of our chapter of ICE. I greatly appreciate how she must have seen something in me to encourage my own ambitions to be an educational technology leader. She brags about the time she encouraged me, “Of course you should present for the ICE Conference. You’d be great.” I think she was prouder that I was this past year when I was asked to be a “Spotlight” speaker (something she’s also done for the ICE Conference.)

When I reflect on what it means to be a leader, I believe that Sr. Mary Therese is such a person because she has vision, extremely high standards, and is influential because she takes steps to elevate those around her and expects us to use our gifts for the good of the students. If you want to know any of her secrets for remaining a life-long learner, you might send her a tweet!

My Brush with Greatness

I recently attended an Administrators’ Academy all-day workshop with Alan November. I have seen him speak a few times before and I have one of his books, so I was really excited to attend this conference. He was awesome! His message is compelling but it’s his style of presenting that makes spending the day with him so enjoyable. He is a passionate educator that filled his talk with anecdotal stories and case studies that really drives home his points. Here is an outline of his message along with some reflection about my own experience:

Technology is a tool that adds richness to teaching and learning. It allows teachers and students to do things that would have never been possible without it. It’s not technology for technology sake – but a way to make connections, develop relationships, collaborate, and express ourselves creatively.

The current curriculum should be “globalized”. We need to teach kids to be reflective and understand that everything needs to be viewed from many perspectives. He gave the example of looking at the American Revolution from the British perspective by accessing curriculum materials from the UK or even talking to a teacher or students from the UK to find out how they are learning about the American Revolution. An example from our district is requiring students from the Middle School foreign language classes to find articles about current events from newspapers and media sources from Spanish speaking countries – not just from our country’s media.

Rethink Assessment and provide opportunities to create content. Find a balance between focusing on standardized assessment tools and offering students the opportunity to develop higher level thinking skills with projects and activities that ask them to create, make decisions, and work with others. In our district, we can demonstrate many examples of how kids use creativity and problem solving skills. Sometimes they don’t even use a computer – but we are prepared to help them do things like create videos too.

Understand the concept of information literacy and know that using the web to find information is a complex process. With the help of the Library Media Specialist in our district, I created a presentation that combined much of the concepts from Alan November’s book as well as the Standards for the 21st Century Learner from the American Association of School Librarians. You can find that presentation here. Basically, we can’t ask students to “go find it on the web” without first considering how construct a query, locate information, and evaluate the source. Although many teachers disregard the complexity of the Internet and still expect their student to “google” everything, we are getting much better at providing better preparation for using the Internet effectively and efficiently.

Based on what I learned that day, I think the change I would most likely implement is to utilize the free tools such as Skype to connect our students to the world. Alan spent a great deal of time giving examples and making recommendations about how a simple thing like a Skype call in a classroom can really transform a learning experience. We used Skype twice this year to connect our students to classrooms in Canada and Texas. I know that was a fun experience. I will look for more opportunities for other classrooms to make connections to help students understand that the world is only a Skype call away.

In addition, I would facilitate more opportunities for students to create content for a wider audience – making sure that really rich projects are showcased on the web. I’ll start by showing teachers projects from YouTube, wikis, and blogs to demonstrate what is possible, then offer support so that projects don’t become “just one more thing”.

Pageflakes – the way to keep track of Intentional R&D

I came across a post from a blogger from the Teacher Leaders Network describing the educational use of Pageflakes. I used to have pageflakes set up as my home page, but it was really slow to load. My kids started to complain, and I just set it back to good ‘ole Google. After reading Mr. Ferriter’s post, I decided to work on my PageFlakes and even copied a few of his pages, like the educational bloggers page and the Accomplished Educational Leadership page.

Like Mr. Ferriter, the single most important form of professional development that I engage in on a daily basis is reading blogs. Creating a visual way to organize my favorites (who are also his) will make it easier to spend a few minutes here and there to read them and organize information that I get from them with flakes like notepad, and delicious.

I think when I show teachers how to read blogs, this form of feedreader will be easier to understand and perhaps I might be able to persuade more teachers to try this when I show them my pageflakes page.

How I Learn New Stuff

I try really hard to know as much as I can about current technology. Even if I’m not able to put every available tool or trend into practice in my personal or professional life, I pride myself on at least being aware of what’s going on out there among the most tech-savvy. I’ve been asked dozens of times, “How do you know so much?” My answer is, “I read a lot!” I read blogs, del.ico.us links, articles, and occasionally, books. I also listen to podcasts and watch videos of presentations, or sometimes at least look at the presentation, even if it’s without the presenter. I spend sometime everyday expanding my knowledge about what’s going on in the world, especially when it applies to education.
Here are a couple of the coolest tools that I use on a daily basis:

  • Del.icio.us – this is a public book marking site. I have collected over 1000 links. I always start by looking at “popular” and “recent“. One can find great articles, new web2.0 websites, and other useful web resources. I also have a network of educational technology experts that I follow and I check to see what they’ve bookmarked to make sure I don’t miss anything important.
  • Google Reader – This is an aggregator that helps me keep track of all the blogs I read and news websites from this site as well. When I find a blog or new site I want to follow, I copy the link and “add the feed”. Every time I return to my Google Reader page, the articles that have been posted since my last visit are available. I will eventually take advantage of the shared items feature so I can create a shared items page for my friends.
  • Clipmarks – This site/tool is hard to describe. Basically when I read articles that I want to keep for future reference, I use a clipmark to highlight the important parts of the article and the site saves my articles in a collection and using tags, I can access them later. It’s important to read what other people are clipping and “pop” the articles from others as a way to participate in the clipmark community sharing information.

When I find a resource, website, or article that I want to keep, I decide how to mark it for future use. I usually bookmark the site on Del.icio.us. If it’s an article that I want to refer to in a future presentation or blog, I use Clipmarks. Google reader lets me “star” a blog entry or news article. If I find a resource that I know is useful for teachers, I’ll add the site to my wiki.

I have a real problem with collecting all this stuff. I need time to sift through all the information and organize and annotate the best resources. I have a huge collection of interesting stuff. I just need to put it to good use.

We Have to Know

In August 2006, Clarence Fischer of Arapahoe High School in Colorado made a presentation to his staff. His PowerPoint presentation was on his blog that week and I found it really compelling. His purpose was to get his teachers to really think about what students need in their learning environment to be prepared and successful in the 21st century. The message of the presentation is that we need to pay attention to factors such as the growing importance of India and China and globalization that has made our world “flat”. This shift should not be looked at negatively, but instead we need to recognize that this shift provides tremendous opportunities for our children. We need to reflect on our own teaching practices and attitudes in response to this change.

During the next several months, the Shift Happens presentation was seen all over the edu-blogosphere. They call that “going viral”. In the past year or so, estimates of over 10 million people viewed various versions of the presentation. What would that be like for Clarence, I wonder. How could a simple staff presentation become so powerful that millions of people have seen it, quoted it, wrote about it, and let the story move them? See the shifthappens wiki created by Clarence and Dr. Scott Mcleod for information about the presentation.

Although the presentation is essentially over a year old, it’s been reworked a couple of times to keep in fresh and clarify its message. His recent keynote at the K 12 Online Conference is worth a look. Anne Davis does a good job of summarizing his address. Here is Anne’s description of Clarence Fischer’s keynote at the K12 Online Conference.

Here is the video of the most recent version:

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It’s Great to Be Orange

The “True Colors” activity was really interesting. I did a similar activity during the 80’s while in the management training program at Marshall Field’s (my old life). My profile was completely different. I was the traditional, analytical, organized type – like a “greenish-gold” person. I was not at all the high energy, creative type. I think that my profile changed not because I’m a different person, but because my profession helped bring out other characteristics. I guess being an educator brought out my spontaneous, high energy side. I don’t think I could use the same criteria to characterize my personality many years ago.

I thought my husband was also orange. With the is high energy, rather competitive, and tends to be the “idea man” – thinking about how he motivates the rest of us. When he took the “test” he was so gold. Like me, he has a different profession within the past 10 years and that profession requires certain characteristics. Like me, the environment has shaped him to some degree.

My son Bryan is blue. He is so blue….I knew he was going to be blue when I looked at the material in class this week. When he took the “test”, he seemed to really know himself and after he read about being blue, admitted that blue is him to a tee. He is sensitive, compassionate person who is reflective and empathetic. Those are all wonderful qualities, except the sensitive part can sometimes hold him back. I was impressed by how well Bryan knew himself (he is only 16). I know a lot of grownups who couldn’t be as reflective.

I accused my husband of not taking the right answers. I still say he’s orange.

The Interview

I really enjoyed talking to my assistant principal. She was such an excellent teacher. I have a great deal of respect for her. These were the ways that she was a wonderful teacher:

  • She had a great deal of respect for the students and they never felt that she was being unfair
  • She didn’t get caught up in minutia, picking her battles with middle schoolers carefully
  • She was extremely student centered, working hard to make sure they were successful
  • Always used creative teaching strategies – really engaging teaching activities to help kids learn concepts
  • Loved her content area and was really enthusiastic about her topic
  • Always strived to learn new things, especially using technology as a tool
  • Had complete control of the class – even if the students walked all over every other teacher in the middle school, they knew their place in her room

When we talked and I asked her about the skills that were needed to be an effective administrator, she said that being a teacher and looking at her job through teacher’s eyes was essential. I can definately see that. When asking teachers to work hard, learn new things, change their teaching, it helps to be empathetic because you were in their position at one point in time.

Here’s the thing about the culture in our building that I find frustrating and I asked her, carefully without mentioning any names, how to deal with those who just refuse to step up. She said that one must “nag” that individual and make them feel so uncomfortable until they feel either compelled to change or compelled to leave. In the twelve years I’ve been in this school community, I have yet to see teachers leave because they felt it was time to move on. Usually, it is the really great teachers who leave (for more money no doubt). The other thing she said was that they key was to get the real superstars (who tend to be the least vocal) to get on board. Then, they kind of bring everyone else along. If the superstars tend to be the quiet ones, how is their voice heard over the sound of the whiners? That will be the challenge. I thought it was important the she recognized that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses and that it was important to look at each of us as individuals.

In my position, I work with every single one of the teachers in our building. We’re expected to collaborate on integrating technology, and team-teach when the students are in the lab. I sometimes feel like a “mole” because I have information that I acquire from the teachers that I can not share with administration and vice versa. Things go on in the computer lab with teachers and students that I know should not continue. Specific teachers are not engaged with technology integration and bring down papers to grade and make it clear that their time here is planning so it is up to me to work with the students. I combat this by asking the teacher to help children every time they have a content-area related question, which accounts for half the questions. So I help the children by telling them what buttons to push, but I call the teacher over if the students have a question about how to word a sentence, spell something, or how to understand what it says on a website. Certainly, I could answer content related questions, but that is my way of keeping the teacher off the chair. The specific teachers however, have pulled some wool over they eyes of my favorite administrator. She mentioned names of teachers who she thought were very strong and could be real leaders in our efforts to improve. When I compare them to her based on how well we worked together when she was a teacher, I do not at all agree with her assessment of these teachers. As a “mole” I listen to people complain, put down administration, and flat out refuse to do what they have been asked (when it comes to implementing teaching strategies). Apparently, a couple of them are singing a different tune to my friend. I have to maintain the trust of the teachers in my building however, so I keep my mouth shut. I’ve gotten really good at that over the years. I think that will serve me well when I’m an administrator.

All in all, I think that my friend is a great assistant principal. She is just learning how to manage, but I am sure that her approach to this new job will be the same as it was when she was a teacher. She will show all the same degree of respect, engage all in learning, and effectively “control the class”.

Nine Strategies

I found a wonderful resource to help the teachers. In a previous post, I mentioned that my principal and her assistants were working on putting together a professional development program where teachers would work in study groups. This resource is an internet hotlist for the “Marzano 9”, the nine instructional strategies from his book What Works in Classroom Instruction.

It is apparent that a school district in Arizona had some teachers pull together a list of web resources for each of the nine strategies. The hotlist is about a year old and I didn’t check to see if all of the links were live, but from what I can tell, it is still viable.
This is how I would use this resource in a professional development context. Our administration does 5-minute walk throughs where they punch in a bunch of quick observations based on the high yield strategies into a palm pilot and then download it into a report. This will help them track what happens in the school, and perhaps with individual teachers. Based on the walkthroughs, weaknesses might show up. It’s hard to tell this for an individual teacher because the walkthroughs are done at random and it is possible that the administrator may never see something during the visit that the teacher does on a frequent basis.

If for example, the administration sees very little non-linguistic representation, it could be a “skill of the week”. The teachers could read that chapter from Marzano’s book, take a look at the web resources to get further ideas, and then after focusing on that strategy discuss the strategy reflectively with her colleagues and supervisor. I think teachers need to be responsible for their own learning. They really resent being told what to study or learn. This resource may help teachers look at their instructional practices a little differently. In addition, these web resources were written by other teachers, which makes them all the more effective and valuable.

Who is in charge here?

Since no one from my employer reads this, I can talk about an incident that happened at my school without concern that I’ll get in trouble. So….last week was parent teacher conferences. It’s a long story, but this year because of some weird circumstances P/T conferences were from 1-8 p.m. on Thursday and until 1 p.m. on Friday. For the past many years, they would be from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday was a day off for everyone. The specials teachers leave at 3:15.

Last year, the teachers voted to have conference over the two days this way instead of losing a day off over Winter or Spring break. This year, there was a lot of whining. “Couldn’t we shorten the time we talk to each parent?”, “Couldn’t let the kids off the whole day of Thursday to get the conferences over with?”, blah, blah, blah. The Principal’s position was, “You decided on this last year. I think this was a dumb solution, but this is what you came up, so you have to live with it…and no….these people pay thousands of dollars every year for us to educate their children, 10 minutes for a conference is the least you can do!” Period.

I loved that! No time for discussion and problem solving. Just “Here…this it….now shut up about it.”

Then to really aggravate the complainers, she told the Gym, Music, Art, Library, and Technology teacher that since no parent ever comes in to see them, they should just work until 8:00 (really long planning time) on Thursday and stay home on Friday. Earlier in the week, one of the teachers was in the lounge with a room full of teachers (including Music and Art) ranting about how it really made her mad (using much stronger language) that the Fine Arts teachers get Friday off and she has to come in and meet with parents. (Little does she know that the principal came in to the art room Thursday evening around 6:00 p.m., where we were all hanging out having a few laughs, put her finger over her lips and gave us the “shoo…shoo” sign. This meant we got out of two more hours of work.)

Ok, so how many leadership/relationship rules does she break? In class, we learned about about the 12 cultural norms, one of which is involvement in decision making, another is which is trust and confidence. There are some decisions that not everyone needs to be involved in. Or when decisions are made as a group, someone is going to left unhappy. For example, last year the old principal made it possible for all of us to be involved in how we’d solve a timing issue with P/T conferences. Everyone (except the new principal) had their chance to voice their opinion and the consensus was what we did this week. Even though they were involved in the decision making process, they still were unhappy. And that trust and confidence thing? Even though she knows at least one teacher is p…….d off at her, she lets the fine arts teachers leave even earlier!

Here’s another example of decisions that should not be left up to the group. In class, (this class) the students connect what we are learning in leadership and project to position of leader to the instructor, unfairly in my opinion. Here’s my view: We are all taking a graduate level course from an accredited college. We made the decision to make the commitment, made out the checks, and came to class. I don’t think I should have any say so in the number and lengths of assignments. I do not believe students should be consulted on the syllabus of the class. In the case of being an adult taking a graduate level course, it seems like one should expect there to be a certain level of rigor. We don’t consult our students on how much work they should do. We are professionals and we know what we’re doing. We assign the only what is necessary to practice a skill and assess what is learned. Some teachers do a better job than others. It takes experience to figure out the balance. In graduate school, the instructors are professionals and the students are the “consumers”. We’re paying a fortune for these classes. We have to trust the college knows what they are doing. If they work load seems like too much, then maybe this isn’t a good time in one’s life to make the commitment to take classes. (Ok, so now who is sounding a little blunt.) I appreciate how the instructor listen to the discussion, and was able to accommodate the requests of the students. I know most teachers, at all levels, have been known to reschedule a test or back down on a project because the students complained about the load with all the classes they are taking. It’s not about torture, after all.

Anyway, back to my principal. I like the way she problem solves. She faced with a number of very vocal “whiners”. She has to be tough. She has high expectations (norm #3) and is trying to bring the rest of the group along by offering support and expressing her appreciation. She doesn’t however, let the whining impact her every move. Sometimes she makes decisions without consulting the masses, just because she can. If she tries to make everyone happy, she’ll drive herself nuts and lose focus on what is important.

Upon reflecting on the 12 cultural norms, I think people have to earn the right to be involved in decision making. If one shows that they really have the best interest of the whole organization in mind by their actions and their behavior, they show that they are a contributing member. Therefore everyone would benefit by them being involved in decision making. On the other hand, by resisting experimentation and innovation, lacking collegiality (evidenced by the teacher’s lounge rant, staff meeting whine), those few people need a little more direct approach. A leader needs to have to wisdom to know the difference.