Monday, April 25, 2016

Final reflections on Connected Educator, Connected Classroom

A mix of online experiences, work with my students, and thoughtful reflection widened and deepened my understanding of connection as an educator this semester.  I am finally starting to bridge what I understand intuitively in the face-to-face world as I plug in more meaningfully into the digital world.  Despite the online-focus of my graduate program, I also better understand the broader meaning of connection as it spans both worlds.

Typically, my busy season (the time near robotics build and competition season) is when I go dark in the digital world.  This year, the opposite effect was catalyzed by @jenhegna's Innovative Instructional Leadership courses through Winona State University.  Our current course, Connected Educator, Connected Classroom is 95% online.  Weekly chats are hosted on Twitter, all written assignments and reflections are blog-based, and the rest is live streamed or posted to an ePortfolio.  Our coursework is fairly open-ended, and the goals are to become better connected as teachers online and to more effectively connect our students with others.

Given the online focus of the course, I assigned connection with a narrow definition, often as a contact book, list of followed users, or a blog roll.  In this context, my natural instinct was quantity over quality and on demand rather than nurtured relationships.  When developing my connected course activity, I had students package their work for others to view and offer feedback.  Though I didn't think of it this way at the time, I sent them off to join new networks with the plan only to take feedback and ideas from others, a plan that did not work.  It was from this context that I was able to deeply appreciate and learn from this video shared on Twitter of @cherandpete's classroom:

As I alluded to at the end of my recent post about connecting my classroom, Pete's class video gave a powerful definition and example of holistic connection that spanned from classroom community to a global network.  He very intentionally took time to go on excursions with his class that connected him to his students and his students to one another.  It was from this base that they went out to their high school, their local community, and a number of very unique individuals online.  Connection wasn't a digital thing, it was a human thing, and it started with the class itself.

Going further, Pete's video reminded me of something I always knew: connection is relationships.  In the context of being a connected educator, I need to create and foster relationships with other passionate teachers, people with domain expertise relevant to my courses, and people who can inspire my students.  While seeking connections for students, I need to look for all of these in addition to groups of learners that can partner with my students for mutual benefit.  Though I have places where I could imagine gaining or taking from such a network, I need to go in with a mindset focused on listening and giving if I ever want it to amount to anything worthwhile.

Recently, I went head-first into planning my new Grand Challenge Design course.  In order to make this class feasible at a technical, financial, and client level, I need to build a large, strong network.  I don't yet have all of the technical skills that I will be teaching students, so I am leaning on a former student and other robotics mentors to help me figure it out.  In this case, I am drawing on a few years of built-up relationships as I seek help.  I am also forming new relationships with individuals in the local start-up community who want to see young people deeply immersed in design and entrepreneurship.  Rather than trying to fundraise, I am instead trying to build a team of people who want to expand the vision well beyond my school to spark change across the region.  This might not generate short-term funding, but by focusing on dreaming and relationship building, I think that we will together imagine something that none of us could have come up with ourselves and find a number of funding sources to support all of it.  Finally, I am starting to reach out to non-profits and small businesses.  Our class will work with these client partners as we design our products during second semester.  As I do this, I am trying to minimize my talking and focus on listening to the challenges and opportunities in their organizations.  Once again, my goal is to build relationships, and down the road, there may be an opportunity for students to engage more deeply and co-design with these groups.

My next big planning step is to start building these same kinds of relationships in the digital world.  The initial stage, scanning hashtags and jumping into chats, is a process to help me understand who is out there.  From there, my goal is not to latch on to someone and expect them to magically work with me or give me feedback on my ideas, but rather to understand each of them, their classes or jobs, and their individual passions.  Due to the impersonal nature of digital connections, I need to turn off my transactional thinking and take the same approach as I'm taking with my face-to-face network.  In time, if I am truly listening to and learning from these people, I will find project ideas and new opportunities that meet many people's needs and truly engage a dedicated team.  If I want this new course to be awesome, this is what it will take long-term.

One trap I often fall into is looking around for new people, often geographically close to me, when I already have a strong network of great relationships from my past.  As I plan for an engineering + entrepreneurship course, my friends from Olin College are an incredible resource that I desperately need to reconnect with.  On my California trip, I was able to spend time in the classrooms of 3 Oliners and visited many more.  I am especially excited for @R_Schutzengel's new IB design course, as there may be opportunities for our students to work together remotely on various design challenges and for us to share pieces of our curriculum.  Besides the few friends that are actual classroom teachers, many more of my college friends are still deeply connected to education and have a lot of awesome ideas that have already helped me frame the new course.  Like any relationship, I need to reconnect with a focus on listening and understanding their needs first so I can look for overlap and places where we can work together for mutual benefit.

All of this makes perfect sense in the context of my existing digital network, the #MTBoS.  Fellow Minnesotan @veganmathbeagle's recent blog post reminded me of @lmhenry9's closing comment at last summer's Twitter Math Camp.  In response to the question what makes the #MTBoS so special?, she said "It's the community, (stupid)".  Even in an online group that is THAT large, it is all about people and their relationships.  The cool resources and improved pedagogical ideas that emerge are the outpouring of a group of people who are listening to each other's needs and sharing their best ideas with that community.  It is in this kind of environment that even a peripheral participant like me can be so energized.

Essentially, my deep insights this semester are:
  1. that connection spans from reaching out to the entire world all the way down to intra-classroom relationships, and that intentionally building connection at all of these levels matters
  2. that building and nurturing connections starts with being focused on the needs of others and listening empathically so you can understand people
Given that I'm human, I won't pull off #2 perfectly, but if I make that my focus in all of my interactions, I hope that I can build an amazing network supporting me, my students, and our ideas while helping a lot of other people reach their own visions.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Becoming a connected educator

My graduate class, Connected Educator, Connected Classroom, pushed me this semester more than I expected.  I knew that connecting my classroom would pose some challenges, but I didn't think that I, the educator, would find myself so disconnected.  I had never actually participated in Twitter chats before this semester, something that I now find invigorating, productive, and worth scheduling as part of my week.  I also didn't spend a lot of time thinking about where I wanted to focus my connections.  Late April gives me an ideal time to reflect on this course, summarize my learning before a number of talks / presentations, look ahead at my 2016-17 teaching schedule, and consider the bigger picture of my priorities and its resulting schedule before committing to too much for next year.

Beginning with the end, my academic focus next year is primarily on my new course, Grand Challenge Design.  This class is a significant break from what I have done in my teaching career, but it is deeply rooted in my experiences through Olin College and coaching robotics.  In order to live up to the insane vision I have for the class (students leaving the course with the ability to create startups that address Grand Challenges with Internet of Things solutions), I will need an incredible network of support that I am deeply connected to.  Historically, I found that it was more "efficient" to just create my own digital resources for students than to spend all my time looking for golden eggs that I could magically piece together.  For this class, I am 100% positive that taking the DIY approach to curriculum and experience design is the best way to build a horrible course while running myself into the ground.  In addition, this class requires significant funding that the district does not have, pushing me into the community to find a network of financial supporters.

I am taking multiple approaches to building this team:

  1. Start with the relationships I have by reaching out to my college friends.  Though some Oliners are active on Twitter, many are found more on Facebook.  The Olin network on Facebook essentially built my entire itinerary for my California trip back in March, and as I run into more questions, I am confident that they will be able to help.  Beyond online communication, I will continue to call up close friends to talk through both the big picture and the details to get more detailed, nuanced help based on their experiences in education.
  2. Form a new online community of tech educators on Twitter.  I recently began the process of scanning for chats that would fit my course so I could begin conversing with other people doing something very similar to me.  The most promising communities so far appear to be #makerEd (Tuesday 5pm), #kidscancode (Tuesday 7pm), and #dtk12chat (Wednesday 8pm).  I will jump into each of these chats a couple times to find one I want to participate in regularly.  Rather than trying to do everything, the key lesson learned from the repeated chats with my local district is that continuity and relationship building is more important than following 10,000 teachers.
  3. Build a team across the Rochester area.  I tend to bring up my new course often in conversation and presentations.  Through this process, I often get a great conversation about Grand Challenges or relevant technologies, or a referral to meet someone else who is passionate about these, or both.  I am finding so many people so quickly that my meetups are being scheduled 3 weeks out.  At some point, I will need to stop expanding the network and focus on the most interested and excited people who I can work with, but at this stage, I am just learning the territory.
  4. Build a team of educators across the Rochester area.  One of the key messages I have been hearing as I build a local network to support this class is "this is great, but just doing this in Byron is not enough".  In a couple weeks, I will be giving the main talk at a Rochester Area Math Science Partnership (RAMSP) gathering.  This group is a consortium of the local school districts and a few businesses and organizations around math and science education.  At this quarterly event, I will focus my main talk more broadly on how we approach innovation, but will also take advantage of that platform and my breakout session to connect with other teachers who want to co-develop similar experiences for their students.  More generally, since all of my curriculum will be fully open source, I want to find other teachers who can share in the development and co-create a community of young people capable of building really cool things.
  5. Build a team in Byron who wants to reframe traditional subjects around the Grand Challenges.  My new course is going to be awesome, but if it remains just an elective option for techy kids, it was a waste.  My vision for this course is to make it a platform to reimagine how we teach everything, giving students rich context to understand the world and then tools to create solutions in a variety of ways.  The real measure of failure is if I talk about this course in 6 months and still say my course and my vision.  A cohort of excited teachers taking specific actions to enable students to earn required social studies, English, or science credit in this class, and the deeper infusion of the arts and business into this class as part of our vision is success.
  6. Reach out to our robotics team.  One of the main reasons that FIRST Robotics has been so successful in Byron over the past four years is the incredible dedication of our mentors.  Our high school FRC team has over ten adults who each give an inordinate amount of their time working with students and dealing with logistics.  I have already benefitted from the technical and non-technical advice of this group of mentors on my course application, grant applications, and technical planning for the curriculum.  I have also reached out to my students.  The primary reason this course is going to run next year is that 13 of the 17 returning FRC students signed up to take the class, making up over 50% of the enrolment.  I have turned to them for advice and feedback already, but will do so much more as we head into summer.
  7. Strengthen the intraclass relationships of my students.  Of all the connections an educator can have, the trump card goes to relationships in the classroom.  I want to know all of my students well, I want them to know me, and I want them to know each other.  I want us all to have high trust with one another.  I want to use some very non-traditional grading that requires me to have significant trust in my students.  I want students to take the lead as assistant teachers whenever possible to support their peers.  None of this is not an automatic process.  One particular challenge will be the robotics / non-robotics dynamic with slightly over half of the students coming from our team.  I will also have a mix of juniors and seniors.  Finally, girls are a small minority of the class, even less than they are on the robotics team, meaning that I will need to invest energy into helping students form positive, low-bias working relationships on teams.  Despite my classroom network being the hardest to effectively build, it will be the most important and most rewarding for everyone involved.
These key points for building my network for next year reflect the many levels of connection that apply to every teacher, of every subject, and all times.  I now believe that connection starts in classroom community, grows out to families, teachers, and the school community, expands into the local area, and then goes online to the broader world.  I am excited about my specific plan, but more importantly, I feel like I now have a mental roadmap for building a network in anything I do.

Reflections on connecting a classroom

I feel comfortable being a connected educator.  I understand how connection benefits and grows me as a teacher and person, and I understand the logistics behind building new and lasting connections.  Because I have been building connections for so long, I feel like it is just something I was born able to do, so when I made my first conscious effort to connect my classroom, I was in for a nice surprise: connecting is not as natural as it looks.  In addition, I later realized that what I asked my students to do is fundamentally different than what I do when seeking connection.

During the past quarter, the primary project for teams of students in my Game Design class was to (surprise!) build a game.  It could be a video game, card game, board game, anything -- as long as it was (1) awesome and (2) a game, it counted.  Students loved the challenge, and despite a lack of formal instruction on the tools used to construct digital games, many teams took that path and learned the logistics together.

One of my requirements for the design process is that teams capture their progress in two week segments, post a blog update, share out their learning to a wider audience, and use the incoming feedback to direct their next cycle.  I was not surprised when students resisted, so I kept pushing them forward to capturing their work in videos or writing and spread it across the web.  I showed students the game design subreddit, talked about Twitter users that would be good to connect to, and encouraged them to search for niche communities in forums and elsewhere that would take an interest in their project.  I even helped them take the reader's perspective when phrasing things, since nobody on the internet wants to do your homework.  However, they may gladly jump into a creation that you are passionate about and willing to open up.

After students got their posts online, [[crickets]].  Nothing.  A few teams got an unhelpful "good luck" or "sounds cool".  Nobody was willing to engage.  We talked about it as a class, and the consensus was that they were not far enough into their projects yet to really communicate the idea.  I agreed, but two weeks later we ran into the same issue.  Student motivation for the capturing and sharing was very low due to the lack of interest and response, opting to just focus on building their game instead.


When looking back on the failed project, I thought a lot about who I go to for feedback on my own ideas.  95% of the time, it is to people who I know, who I trust, and who care about me.  My poor wife signed up for a lifetime of reading tons of things I put together.  Some of my close friends, family, and co-workers get all of my long emails, blog posts, and Google Docs with a variety of things that get me excited.  Occasionally, I go to the wider Twitter community for feedback on ideas, but even in this case, I engage with someone via referrals of people I have existing relationships with.  In all situations, relationship precedes meaningful feedback.  If I want my students to seek feedback from the outside world, I need to help them build relationships in those communities first.

Taking a step further back, I realized that feedback and connection depend on audience.  My students were not asked to design games for a given market segment -- they were told to make something awesome that they would be passionate about.  As a result, they put little thought into their target audience, leaving them with no clear group to validate their ideas.  Feedback didn't even matter that much to the students -- they were focused on their main customers -- themselves!  When designing passion-based projects that have external connection as a key goal, I will make sure that students define their external audience and engage with that group to test and improve their work.

Finally, I realized how narrowly I was defining and thinking about connection in my classroom.  Shortly after Game Design ended, @jenhegna shared out a powerful video with one teacher sharing his class's varied connected experiences.  His class had activities that build community amongst the students and teacher, interactions across the school, connections with parents and community members during their projects, and purposeful outreach to authors and subject experts globally.  It made so much sense -- connection is not only an online thing -- it is all over, at all levels, in all places.  Online connection is one important component of a larger space.  This ah-ha moment has been the key to all of my planning for future courses as I look to make connection something that is deeply embedded at many levels.