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.

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