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.

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