But the best example of shared learning in my life is my working partnership with Ellie Gilbert, a fellow teacher at SMA. We were lucky enough to begin our working relationship four years ago by teaching English 9 together while sharing a classroom—and did so at the same time our school implemented a 1:1 mobile technology program. We not only planned together, but we watched each other teach on a daily basis and marveled at the way each of us found new ways to learn with our students.
For both of us, this experience blossomed into a deep friendship and partnership that not only made teaching incredibly fun and rewarding, but catalyzed us both to become ten times better than either of us would have been alone.
This year things changed. I moved into our technology department, allowing me to spend more time on instructional tech coaching, but taking me out of English 9 and the shared classroom space. Ellie and I worried about how this would change our partnership—turns out, our worries were unfounded.
Is it different? Certainly. But the foundation we built over three years in English 9 has blossomed into a partnership of a different sort—one between an instructional tech coach and a master teacher who continue to catalyze each other’s growth.
We are better together. So why not take that into the digital world?
So I am thrilled to announce that Ellie and I have joined forces on LearnersTogether—it will continue to be a forum to reflect on learning and share the stories of others, but as usual with the pair of us, it will end up being ten times better than either of us could make happen alone.
"Where are your stories? Where are your students' stories?" I found myself sitting in a bubble of my own frozen silence when Kevin Honeycutt asked these questions during the Keynote this morning at NCCE2016.
I know students' work and stories should be out there. So why am I not doing a better job of making that happen? And as a Tech Coach, it occurred to me that the same could be said for how I share the work of my colleagues.
Of course, we all know the challenges there. Teachers are often the least likely to want to share their own stories. It's as if the profession builds in a misplaced sense of modesty and self-consciousness. Ironic, right? Yet as Honeycutt pointed out, if we don't share those stories, no one will know, and no one can be expected to support the incredible work that happens every day.
I don't have the answers. I really only have some glimmerings of questions.
During the previous two school years, I participated in small action-research groups with colleagues from my school in an effort to better understand my own practice. Expertly led by one of my colleagues, Ellie Gilbert, that experience was invaluable and transformative.
But after two years of that amazing experience, it was time to create space for others to come to that table. And it was time for me to find a new experience to energize my professional life.
Enter the Design Challenge.
Based on the Stanford d.School model, our Design Challenge is being organized by SMA's Director of Innovation, Shawn Daley, and a local art teacher/design model expert, Beth Rogers Bundy. It includes seven of my colleagues plus two students. Our goals are 1) to learn the Stanford d.School model with an eye toward where it could fit into our various curricula, and 2) to develop some ideas for a new library space since we have the chance to expand our campus in the next few years.
It has been another eye-opening, transformative experience, albeit in a completely different way than the teacher-research group. I realized that we as teachers engage in design all the time, but don't really think consciously about how that process functions. And as a result, we often skip the initial essential part of the process--empathy--and jump right to solving whatever problem or tension we see. If our designed solution does not work, we are left with a pile of unanswered questions and frustrations. And it makes it all the harder to try again.
I was so taken with this experience that I talked with my Speech class about it just before the Winter Break. I wondered out loud what students might think about engaging in a similar project as part of a future Speech class. My students met the idea with enthusiasm and energy--they even jumped right into brainstorming topics for a design challenge. I admit I was surprised--sometimes what I as a teacher think would be "awesome!" does not feel the same way to students.
Although I had not originally planned to incorporate a design challenge this semester, I couldn't stop thinking about how their faces lit up and their voices bubbled and surged. So I decided redesign the last two weeks of the semester to become a design challenge, and with trepidation, I presented them with the plan when we returned from break. Would they still be interested in the idea with finals looming? Would they think I was nuts?
I should have given them more credit. They jumped right into the experience. Four teams of students created designs for four different spaces: a cafeteria, a gym, a nurse's station, and a rooftop/outdoor garden space--spaces they chose, even though I encouraged them to consider smaller projects (e.g., a new kind of locker) given the time frame!
After two weeks of learning and following the d.School process, the students' pitches took place yesterday in front of an authentic audience of five adults--three administrators and two staff members--all of whom have some level of influence regarding physical spaces in our school. All of us were impressed with the students' grasp of the design process as well as their thoughtful ideas and prototypes. Some highlights:
--Students had clearly anticipated and answered questions from their audience that I had not even thought of--evidence of excellent critical thinking.
--The students were able to clearly articulate how their users' needs were being addressed.
--Two of the four groups had, of their own volition, used 3D modeling apps on their iPads to create their prototypes. (I tried these apps myself--they are challenging to work with!)
--The students' ideas were well-supported with research; some even estimated costs and offered lists of materials needed. Some had also visited or researched other similar spaces for inspiration.
--The students expanded on how their ideas would have impact in other ways beyond just physical space--for instance, the rooftop garden group discussed how the garden could be used for experiential and entrepreneurial learning about environments and sustainability.
And here's the best part--my students now have the vocabulary and structure regarding design process that they did not possess before. It will guide them in all their future design work, whether they are designing a project for a class or working with a group to solve a problem. And they don't even realize how much they've learned.
Next steps? Any good design process requires post-design data gathering and redesign, so I'll be asking my students for feedback about the process so I can redesign it. But I can say with certainty that a design challenge project will be an integral part of the class next semester.
I am shocked to find that September is nearing its end. It appears that my internal clock decided to take a vacation while the controlled chaos of new students and trainings and coaching meetings washed me into and nearly out of the warm fall days of September. I'm positive that this is a common ailment in our field.
In the past month I have been fortunate enough to work with a wide range of teachers regarding technology integration. And while the beginning of the school year is usually a time of renewal and energy, for many teachers, incorporating technology is still easier said than done. It is often assumed that reluctance to integrate is linked directly to age or lack of experience. But that turns out not to be the case.
I have witnessed a younger teacher blanch at the idea of accepting papers digitally while an older teacher leapt headfirst into creating a paperless environment with a new LMS. I have seen a preservice teacher implode when asked to learn a new app while a veteran teacher changed gears mid-stream in class to try a creative app activity suggested by a student.
So it’s not about age or experience or background knowledge. It’s about vision.
Successful, satisfying technology integration has to be meaningful. It’s not enough to just plop a YouTube video into a lesson plan or ask students to fill out a worksheet in an app instead of on paper. Those might be places to start, but they will never be fully satisfying to either teacher or students.
Teachers who succeed at integrating technology understand that it is simply one tool of many in their kit. Including it has to be part of an overall pedagogical vision for creating a quality learning experience for students. So what does that look like?
--Chemistry students creating and sharing detailed video journals of their experiments, including hypothesis, process, data, results, and conclusions.
--English students practicing grammar through NoRedInk, an interactive online program designed to help each student learn at their own pace while also providing ongoing data to the teacher about progress.
--World language students practicing their conversation skills by talking with students from other countries through Voxer or Skype.
--High school biology students collaborating by Skype and email with kindergarten students from another school to jointly create a book about local animals.
--Social science students using social media tools to design and gather data on social experiments.
--Social justice students developing non-profit organizations with websites and social media accounts
Meaningful technology integration does not mean using technology for everything. It does mean using technology to:
Expand the boundaries of the classroom past the physical walls
Expose students to real-world learning experiences
Enhance equity by offering students more ways to learn and show what they know
Encourage students to dig deeper and think more critically about content
Streamline workflow and communication within a class
Connect students with each other and others outside their class
Engage students in learning to keep them coming back for more
And, most importantly, engaging the teacher as a learner too.
So, what is your vision? How will you make your technology use meaningful this year?
Five days have passed since I presented on "10 Best Practices for Instructional Technology Coaches" at ISTE2015, and I am still absorbing the experience.
When I walked up to Room 111 just after noon on June 30, I had convinced myself to expect 15 or 20 people at most. Who was I, after all, that people would choose to come hear my thoughts about instructional tech coaching? Instead, I walked into a room buzzing with nearly 100 people. More people flooded into the room as I set up, and the room attendant (a fabulous young woman named Lauren) told me that at least 50 more people could not get into the session and were asking for links to materials and Twitter feeds so they could participate from the hallway. I was awestruck.
That energy continued as the session progressed. Participation, both in person and on Twitter, was enthusiastic. Faces shone with excitement. Discussions between attendees were accompanied by big gestures, laughter, and high fives. And I was able to absorb and reflect back that energy just as I do in my classroom on those awesome "superstar" days when everything is working just right. That kind of experience doesn't happen unless everyone in the room wants it to.
That hour spent with my colleagues from around the country was absolutely one of the highlights, not only of ISTE2015, but of my professional career. But I walked away wondering--what made this session different than so many of the others I attended? What drove the need I felt in the room? Why are my colleagues so thirsty for information and connection?
It was while mulling over this question in the Philadelphia airport that I received a Tweet containing a link to an article that Education Week's Sean Cavanaugh wrote about the session ("Blunt Advice for Harried Ed-Tech 'Coaches' Offered at ISTE"). And after picking myself up off the floor (again), I realized that I might have an answer to my questions.
The role of technology coach is nebulous and hazy--the "Jack/Jill of All Tech Trades"--and often lonely. We have to appear confident and knowledgable so our colleagues will trust us and rely on us, yet we usually do not have administrative authority and therefore must tread the murky political and social tides in our buildings with care. We must often balance our coach duties with teaching our students, and as much as we love what we do, we can be worn down by the weight of all the expectations and needs we carry.
THAT is what I felt in that room on June 30 and THAT is why the session was newsworthy. That hour was one of the few opportunities that any of us had to meet face to face, share our triumphs and challenges, and learn from one another. No wonder the energy was so high and the connections so intense. And I am both overjoyed and humbled that my session offered the chance for all of us to have that time.
If you were not able to attend ISTE and are looking for tech coach connections, check out the Twitter feed #techcoachBP to review the online discussions taking place during the session, and look under Presentation Materials for the slides I used. I plan to continue posting to the #techcoachBP hashtag to keep the connections from ISTE2015 alive. And please follow me @alytormala--I follow back!
What an inspirational day.
It began with a call to action from the panel of amazing female edtech leaders at Paying It Forward: Leveraging Female Voices in EdTech. I was so impressed by the stories and strength of the five panelists (Ellen Bialo, Julie Evans, Margaret Roth, Kari Stubbs, and Dr. Mila Fuller). Then I was blown away again by the voices (both aloud and through Twitter) of the women in attendance. Getting young women engaged in STEM fields and leadership will be a big task, but I have hope after witnessing the power of the women I met today.
That session was followed with Carl Hooker's entertaining and thought provoking session Raised by Siri: A Course in Digital Parenting. Carl did a fantastic job of balancing serious discussions about the challenges facing parents and educators as we raise our digital native kids with the humor that is so necessary in facing those challenges.
After a couple hours of fun and games in the Expo Hall, I wasn't sure how useful Hacking Keynote with Adam Bellow and Dean Shareski would be. But I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to explore aspects of Keynote I had no idea existed. I can't wait to try them out. And my day was satisfactorily wrapped up with a session on Power Up PD: Top 10 Workshops for 1:1 by Diana Neebe and Jennifer Roberts.
Such a variety of sessions, but patterns emerged that I hope to see continue over the next two days.
1) The quality of presentations has been stellar. They were creative, inspirational, challenging, and fruitful.
2) The positive energy of my fellow edtech colleagues is palpable and thrilling. I feel so lucky to be a part of this field and a part of this experience.
Looking forward to participating in that palpable energy as a presenter tomorrow!
One year ago, I prepared to attend the annual International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference for the first time. Registration? Check. Hotel and plane reservations? Check. Bags packed and tech gear stashed? Check.
I thought I was prepared. I mean, it's just a conference, right? You've seen one, you've seen them all. (Yes, ISTE veterans, go ahead and giggle. Laughter is good for the soul.)
Wow, was I wrong. What I experienced at ISTE2014 injected me with a dose of inspiration and energy that lasted almost the entire school year. Because of the amazing people and ideas I encountered at ISTE2014, I started this website, developed new connections on Twitter, became a Pinterest nut, advocated for more time and resources to serve my colleagues as an instructional tech coach, and drummed up the nerve to get more involved in local conferences and tech organizations.
Did everything go as I hoped? Certainly not. In fact, for the past two months I've been so inundated with the daily chaos of completing a school year that my Twitter and Pinterest accounts have cobwebs and this blog had almost forgotten I existed.
Upon embarking into the world of educational technology, I remember being inundated by piles of amazing charts about the SAMR model and how we as teachers needed to aspire to integrating technology at the modification and redefinition levels.
I totally bought into it. Drank the "coffee", so to speak, and I was thrilled to discover a well of untapped creative energy and inspiration inside myself.
After almost two years of 1:1 iPad work at SMA, I am excited about the variety of modified and redefined activities and assessments I've been able to build into my classes. Multi-media digital portfolios, game-based formative assessments, flipped video assessments, and other similar activities abound in my curriculum. And I continue to add to my spectrum of modification and redefinition every chance I get.
But I have rediscovered the power of simplicity as well.
There is power in saving paper and time simply by making handouts, notes, and presentations digital, because that means I can have that extra conversation with the student who needs it, or spontaneously post and discuss in class the poem or article I happened across on Pinterest that morning. There is power in having students turn in papers digitally, so we can fit more revisions into a shorter time period and I can offer better, faster feedback. There is power in photos of in-class notes and online discussions and digital file management and calendar reminders--all of which allow my students to learn effective ways to self-organize, self-manage, and problem-solve.
All of these simple changes may be at the level of substitution or augmentation on the SAMR chart, and yet their positive influence on my students' experiences is unmistakable.
So, this is for you, black coffee drinkers. And also for you, double mocha caramel frappaccino lovers. Variety is always good. Creativity and redefinition are to be aspired to. But sometimes simple is just what you need.
About this blog...
Learners Together is designed as a forum for sharing ideas, experiences and epiphanies about master teaching and technology integration. Comments and sharing are welcome.
"Getting Girls into STEM: The Power of Blended (and All-Female) Instruction". (Tormala) EdSurge, March 21, 2017.
"Confronting the Abominable Snow Day". (Gilbert & Tormala) Edutopia, Feb. 2017.
"Video Interviews with iPads: The Power of Mobile Technology". (Tormala) EdTechTeam, Jan 2017.
"Discomfort, Growth, and Innovation." (Tormala) Edutopia, Oct. 2016.
"5 Epiphanies on Learning in a 1:1 iPad Classroom." (Tormala) Edutopia, July 2014.