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Archive for August, 2012

As I was driving recently, I heard a commercial on the radio that really grabbed my attention. It was from a real estate organization that was talking about the advantages of owning a home. What grabbed my attention was a statement claiming that children of homeowners score better on standardized tests. I couldn’t believe it. Somebody was using the potential of a child’s success on a standardized test to get people to consider buying houses. Of course, I immediately thought that children of families that didn’t own their home must not be doing as well on these same tests.

At this point during my drive, I tuned out the radio and started thinking about implications of this statement, if in fact it was true. We have been told that the single most influential factor in a child’s education is the teacher. Using that as a sledgehammer statement, many politicians have pushed for connecting teacher assessment to student performance on standardized tests. Of course what now comes immediately to mind is: Are there teachers who have a larger portion of children from families of renters as opposed to homeowners?

What about all the other factors? There are teachers who have students with absences totaling half of a year. Does seat time have an effect on a child’s performance on a standardized test? What about the children from families that are unemployed for any length of time? That must have a negative effect on standardized test performance. What about children of families dependent on food stamps? We know children who are hungry do not perform well at school. Need I even mention children with special needs. If their needs are not addressed in a standardized test, won’t that negatively affect performance? Abused children are another group that may not perform optimally on a standardized test.

Now, if we are to talk about fairness in assessments, when we assess a teacher based on a students’ overall performance on a standardized test we need to ask a question: Do all teachers have these poor performing, albeit for good reason, students in equal portions? Are there teachers with greater numbers of these students in their classes? Are there teachers who have classes without these groups of students represented in the class? When it comes to comparisons we must remember, apples to apples, oranges to oranges and classes to classes.

Yes, the single most influential factor in a child’s education is the teacher. What is left off that statement is that the teacher is not the sole factor in a student’s education. There are hundreds of factors that affect a child’s education that have nothing to do with the teacher. If we are to expect standardized testing to accurately assess students as well as their teachers, we need to first standardize our students.

We need all students to come from safe and healthy homes owned by loving parents. We need all students to be free from physical and emotional challenges. We need all students to be free of racial and cultural prejudices. We need all students to be mentally and physically healthy and sound. Once we have put these standards in place for all students, then standardized tests may begin to approach something that makes sense in assessing teachers for the purpose of standardized education. Be careful of what you wish for!

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared August Connected Educator Month. To the delight of many connected educators, this was a validation for much of their time spent and their many accomplishments achieved through the use of technology in general, and using the Internet specifically. Many connected educators have gathered virtually to assemble panels, webinars, podcasts and blog posts about all of the advantages of being a “connected educator” and its possibility of transforming education as we know it. You might see where I am taking this conundrum thing.

The problem with this is that the vast majority of educators who are most on board with Connected Educator Month are connected educators. Hundreds of connected-educator communities and organizations have signed on to the program and have offered online promotions for the month. This is a wonderful thing for all of the connected educators who belong to those communities. But, the obvious question: Are nonconnected educators involved or even aware?

Of course, avenues to reach nonconnected educators would be print media, television and radio, and articles in journals, newspapers and magazines. We can only hope teachers have time to keep up with such media. Much of this media requires subscription. There might even be buzz at schools that start the school year before September. Of course, the beginning of the year is the busiest and most hectic time at school. That does not allow for a huge amount of buzz.

This is the time that someone trying to sound cool using connected terms will say something to the effect of, “It is only another example of speaking into the echo chamber.” I never understood how that was supposed to lessen the impact of a good idea. If an idea is put forth to a large group of people who share skills, interests and motivations, how is that idea of lesser value? It is still analyzed, questioned and challenged by a group who theoretically knows the subject best. Participants’ agreement on an idea’s value might come from their experience and not because they share a space with other educators. Ideas are challenged all of the time among connected educators. It is the sharing and collaboration of those ideas that give power to connectedness.

No, to be a good teacher, one does not need to be connected. However, the question is if you are a good teacher and unconnected, could you be a better teacher if you were connected? Shouldn’t we strive to be the best that we can be? It’s not only an Army thing. Being connected offers not only exposure to content and ideas but also the ability to create and collaborate on ideas. Being connected fosters transparency and debunks myths of education that have been harbored in the previous isolation of the education profession. This is the stuff of a true learner’s dreams, and, as educators, are we not all learners?

Let me get to the conundrum. How do we connect nonconnected educators if the only people participating in large part in Connected Educator Month are connected educators? Most Americans have a Facebook or Twitter account. There are millions of people who maintain AOL accounts. In the strict sense of the term, these people are connected. However the term “connected educator” requires a focus for connectedness. It requires the educator to be connected to places and people advancing and enlightening the person personally as well as the profession — education. Of the 7.2 million teachers in America, most are probably connected to something on the Internet. We need to get them connected to one another. If we consider all of the education websites for professional development in education and all of the professional connections on Twitter in terms of a professional learning network, it would probably account for far less than a million educators.

We are not a profession of connected educators. We are content experts with access to content that we are not accessing. We are advocates of ideas with the ability to share ideas that we are not sharing. We are creators without using the ability we have to create for an authentic audience of millions who could benefit by our creations. We fight for the status quo of comfort and compliance. This doesn’t make sense to many of you — those of us who are connected.

If the only people benefiting from Connected Educator Month are connected educators, how do we involve the millions of others? I understand that a certain percentage will never be connected, but those who could be, would be, should be and can be are out there. How do we best connect the unconnected educator in a face-to-face method?

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For educators who have been connected since the early days of social media, it is difficult to understand the reason people would ask, “What is #Edchat?” We must remember that many educators using social media for professional reasons have joined only recently. The idea of using social media for professional reasons is a relatively new concept. One would hope that it is having a positive effect because the Department of Education declared August Connected Educators Month. In our technology-driven culture, sometimes we need to stop where we are and take time to consider how we got here.

#Edchat began on Twitter three years ago. Like dog years, three years in social media time is much longer. Back then, there were far fewer educators exchanging ideas on Twitter. Twitter was only beginning to emerge as a serious method of collaboration for educators. Celebrities dominated the network and got great media coverage about their tweets. Serious use of Twitter by educators for collaboration was never covered by the media. It was not media worthy.

The popularity of Twitter for many is a result of its simplicity: Tweets are limited to 140 characters, so the writer isn’t required to say much. Of course, this was not an attraction for educators, who found the limit constricting and not welcoming for people who often have much to say. The secret that had not yet been exploited was that many tweets strung together focusing on a single topic create a discussion. In Twitter terms, this is a “chat.”

Shelly Terrell (@ShellTerrell), Steven Anderson (@web20classroom) and I (@tomwhitby) created such a chat to focus on topics for educators. We used the hashtag #Edchat to aggregate all of the tweets in one place so people could follow #Edchat-specific tweets and focus on the chat in real-time. By isolating all #Edchat tweets in a separate column on TweetDeck, we were also able to follow and archive the entire discussion. #Edchat certainly was not the first “chat,” but its quick acceptance and growth among thousands of educators within weeks ensured its place in Twitter history. We held the original #Edchat at 7 p.m. Eastern on Tuesdays. Tuesdays became known as “Teacher Tuesday,” a day that teachers recommended other teachers to follow on Twitter. Participants used the hashtag #TeacherTuesday or #TT. We quickly learned Twitter’s global reach as European educators requested an earlier #Edchat to accommodate their time zones. We added a noon Eastern #Edchat in response.

The power of the hashtag was still developing in those days. #Edchat, however, began to appear on any tweet that had to do with education. The idea is that if a person on Twitter is connected to 10 educators, every one of his tweets goes to and ends with those 10 followers. This is the basic premise of Twitter. There were many educators who recognized and began to follow the #Edchat hashtag. By tacking #Edchat onto a tweet, the person can extend the range of his tweet beyond his 10 followers to the thousands who follow the hashtag. This potentially increases followers and expands his professional learning network.

There are about 70 education chats working for specific focuses. There are several hundred hashtags used to identify education-specific tweets. #Edchat continues at noon and 7 p.m. Eastern each Tuesday with different topics. The topics are determined by a poll including five topics that is posted each Sunday and remains open until Tuesday. The No. 1 choice becomes the 7 p.m. topic, and the noon #Edchat covers the second-place topic. A team moderates each #Edchat to keep things moving and focused. In addition to those already mentioned, the team consists of Kyle Pace (@kylepace), Mary Beth Hertz (@MBteach), Bernie Wall (@rliberni) and Nancy Blair (@blairteach). You can access the poll. There are hundreds of educators participating globally each week. Jerry Sweater (@jswiatek) maintains the chats, which are all archived.

Jerry Blumengarten (@cybraryman1) maintains other education chats. He also offers a solid list of education hashtags.

These are methods that educators have developed using social media in general, and Twitter specifically, to connect for the purpose of personal and professional development and advancement of the education system. The effect of many #Edchat discussions can be seen in blog-post reflections in the weeks after the original #Edchat discussion. Topics tend to reflect education concerns that have most recently been tweeted or blogged about to maintain relevance. That should be all anyone needs to become part of the #Edchat experience.

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A short time ago I attended a meeting where members of a college English department were doing a presentation to the faculty about their writing program. As I listened to about a 30-minute presentation of the types of writing required by this program, it became obvious to me that two words in this presentation of a college writing program were never uttered. They were two words that as an educator I come in contact with almost every day. Two words that have changed the way information is exchanged. The two words, never mentioned, have transformed the publishing industry. The two words have revolutionized journalism. These two words have moved authentic learning to the fore in writing classes across the country, or rather the world. These professors of writing had developed a program which by all accounts was very effective, but overlooked and did not even mention either of the two words that had changed forever how society views and consumes and disseminates the written word in the 21st Century. Obviously, someone did not do their homework, or maybe they were just not connected. If it is not yet apparent, the two words are “Blog” and “Post”. Sometimes they appear as one, “Blogpost”.

I was a reluctant blogger. I needed to be pushed into doing it. I saw no need to put myself at the mercy of the public scrutinizing: my every idea, my every word, my every mistake. I also did not believe that, even if I managed to start a Blog, I could sustain it with any substantial ideas over a period of time. That was 136 blog posts and two years ago. That number does not include guest posts done for other Blogs. What I learned and appreciate more than any other thing that I get from blogging is that I write for me. It is a reflective, personal endeavor. I made the choice to open my blog to public scrutiny. I encourage comments to my ideas, to affirm, or further reflect on those ideas based on the reader comments. Testing my ideas in public is testing I can believe in. Of course I can take that position because pretty much most of what I have written has been fairly well received in over 2,000 comments.

As an educator I believe kids should be introduced to blogging early.  A writer’s work will quickly improve with a real audience. Writing for an audience of only one is a tedious process. This is the preferred method in education. The writer needs to wait for the composition to be graded. Of course the student writer can always shake off the teacher’s criticism; because the writer is convinced the teacher hates him anyway. With comments from a real audience providing proper feedback, the writer gets a better sense of impact on the audience as well as recognition for accuracy and focus. Of course it is also on the teacher to teach kids how to responsibly comment and respond on other’s posts. We can’t hold students responsible for things that we don’t teach them.

As an educator I believe educators should be blogging. We need to model that, which we are demanding of our students. It also opens the teacher to the effects of transparency. It goes without saying that teachers must be thoughtful and responsible in what they post. We have to remember that any idiot can write a blog and most do. This is why we need more educators modeling and contributing to the pool of responsible blogs. Teachers who abuse their responsibility by irresponsible posts are for the most part just irresponsible adults who were never taught about the responsibilities or the impact of the blogging.

As an educator I believe that administrators should be blogging. Administrators in theory are our education leaders. They have an obligation to tell us where we are going and why we should go there. Education can no longer be an isolated profession. There is too much at stake. I continually try to convince administrators to blog. Many have the same trepidations that I had at first. Most, after taking the plunge, become blogging advocates. Check out the Connected Principal’s Blog. This is a collaborative blogging site for principals, most of whom are recent bloggers.

The whole idea of Connected Educators is to break down the barriers that have prevented us from exchanging ideas in a big way. Technology has provided us the tools to share and collaborate in astounding ways. We do that on a daily basis with existing content. Blog Posts provide us with: original thought, new ideas, questions, reflections, and much, much more.

This is not just a job for writing teachers. The computer is the today’s publisher. Computers do not send out rejection letters. If we as educators recognize the position blogging now has and will continue to have in our society, we need to take responsibility for teaching proper use in whatever our academic field of choice. We need to model for the next generations. We need to use the Blog as a tool to connect and communicate. We need to blog in order to openly reflect and challenge. We need to blog for ourselves while opening our ideas to others. For many this is a scary thought, but for many others it is a challenge.

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