Just what I needed.
Last week I reprised my role as a mentor to a technology course for Southern New Hampshire University, this time for a group in Monterrey Mexico. This came fresh off the heels of an 18-day trip out West with the Colchester Cannons baseball team to South Dakota, and a conference just 24 hours later to Constructing Modern Knowledge in Manchester ( #cmk11 by Twitter hashtag), New Hampshire. Being on the road since June 10 has it's challenges... and it's something I discovered that I missed. Some serious changes of scenery and some new experiences is just what I needed.
Colegio Euroamericano de Monterrey was the name of the school in Mexico where I was headed, the last class in a three-year journey for 25 ladies toward a Masters Degree.
I know... sympathy violins galore right... teach a grad course, a celebratory course no less, in Mexico, great food, 25 ladies...
After meeting my gracious hosts Mena and her husband Lalo at the airport, and a good nights sleep, I arrived at Colegio Euroamericano Monday am.
The news when I arrived was not good: A mother and daughter, Elisa's respectively, had suffered a tragedy. The eldest of the two, Elisa Sr, had suffered a debilitating stroke just a couple days before I arrived. An elderly woman, weeks away from completing her last class in a Masters track, it was hurtful news to the spirited group. I had a chance to meet the daughter, Elisa, as she came into the course looking for avenues to continue her work. It was easy to see how exhausted she was and I assured her that the course here, the day-to-day operations should be the furthest thing from her mind. I'd do whatever I could to help her make up work, whatever the college wanted to finish the work with her and hopefully her mother online at a later date after things had settled down. I assured Elisa that a path would emerge with Vanessa (the programs director), and I encouraged her to be with her mother, to stop in only if she felt she wanted to, and to get some rest. After some heartfelt words of encouragement for Elisa, she left to see her mother and we headed into some quick introductions to the class and got underway.
We started off with a quick story about how I ended up here for this class. Then I framed up that each person would explore their own themes here, something relevant to their teaching. We'd use the group knowledge to explore, my help and resources, and explore paths to learn what we needed to accomplish our goals along the way. We'd discuss/explore/reflect on a collaborative blog that we'd build together, one where each person was an editor. Along the way we'd look at teaching... the philosophy of promoting and practicing explorative learning and our roles within it, explore a heap of resources, get introduced to creative thinkers, inspiring stories, and ideas.
We kicked off with the Reggio Emilia approach and the 'Story of Laura and the Watch,' one of my favorites about how we can work with children. I've studied the work in Reggio Emilia for years now, first exposed to it by Gary Stager back in the day. I had the chance to revisit this approach again at #CMK11, run by Gary, a few weeks ago in Manchester, NH. There I was able to hear the tale of Reggio Emila first hand at the conference from one of my idols in education, Lella Gandini. I recapped how I've often felt that Lella Gandini might have forgotten more about working with children than I know. I recapped the tale from the conference, meeting Ms Gandini, the approach, the role of the teacher, the documentation, and the heartfelt and spirited projects that emerged from the kids in Italy with the group. I tied it in with a framework of how this course might go and my role in it to help.
The challenge I laid out in this Masters class, as I do in my classes in the rLab, is to explore something personally meaningful. The idea of many explorative projects going on in the room at the same time, the teacher as a facilitator, a mentor to many rather than 'directly' leading or scripting instruction, especially in a step-by-step fashion seemed daunting to some... and that's the fun of it I think.
Then I introduced the class blog, a creation I'd put a lot of work into, nearly 10 minutes ; ) ... a basic template on Blogger, one introductory post (what you see now is very different than where we started), and just two links on the side to open, collabroative google docs: one for folks to enter class themes they'd be interested in exploring and the other to discuss personal themes. I told them they'd all be signed in as authors and full editors to the blog and we'd see where it went (and it went on many, many turns). After we dove into the first round of those collaborative project ideas and edits, we took a quick group slant on:
Scripted vs Explorative Learning:
The great challenge for some I explained is how they will balance personal frustration vs learning. As I said in class and in the Grad Course Blog, there have been a few days where I've thought of using a laptop as a frisbee. It takes patience and craft to branch out and explore.
Learning how to learn, how to problem solve, how to seek answers, how to read what is on the screen and deduct what the next possible step might be, and, as I've said many times, to 'develop the courage to click' are all skills that take a fresh perspective, some courage, and willingness to learn. I explained:
Many of us older folk, and unfortunately even younger ones, come from an era of 'scripted learning.' Things are prepared for us, step-by-step. We are asked to follow directions, to provide the required feedback, prepare the specified content in a specific format for a grade. As a result, we get great at following directions.
The great challenge in this rapidly changing era is to revisit how we can learn and how to use these tools for their creative capacity... something far beyond just reading, research, and writing.
Here are two comments from my post earlier on #CMK11 that are so fitting:
Adam, I think you've captured the essence that is CMK. Don't worry about what you don't know, dive in and do it. This is such an important lesson for our students and most importantly, we the teachers.
CMK turns out to be one of those rare, recurring events that actually evolves. It's structured to allow for both philosophical grounding in the experience of children as learners and as a working conference that 'lifts' a teacher out of the 'responsibility role' inherent in any formal school. After an intense year, it was amazing to have four days to ask questions of my own and to meet with curious people and speakers who are drawn to learning.
A couple of quick notes:
1. I always include snacks in classes I work with in the rLab or with adults... and here it was a slightly different, palate adventure. Spicy mixes of nuts and chips, with 'fixin's to drizzle on like hot sauce and pepper flakes, fresh jicama and shredded cucumber... in any fashion people felt like tossing together. Being a spicy food fan... I loved it! I can say, I've never put hot sauce and pepper flakes on chips, especially early in the morning... and find I'm craving it right now actually... ; ) It spurred me on to rethinking the snacks I have and offer up in the Lab...
2. I play music (and movies) in classes in the background in the rLab and did so in Monterrey too. I pulled the group together to hear one piece by a guitar hero of mine named Tommy Emmanuel, a piece called 'The Band Intro - Blue Moon.' I used the piece to discuss developing skill, adding parts and complexity as you go, and evolving the work into something else, something beautiful and rich... and to have some fun along the way. Emmanuel, I said, didn't start out playing this way. He had to learn his craft, much like a young musician would... a powerful reminder to those who readily state how they 'are not good with technology.'
Much like some of my students in the rLab and folks at #CMK11 , the first couple days were challenging. Some were frustrated at the explorative nature of the work, the lack of unified direction... but slowly, many began to see a plan, a theme, a joy of exploring diverse and self-directed work, and an emerging discussion of how to learn, the power in collaborating with peers, and strategies we discussed to seek answers. Near the end of the second day... things really started to take off.
I also provided the explanation that you may jump groups as often or as little as you'd like and many folks did just that, taking on a collection of projects. As we're exposed to new things, new interests develop.
I also explained that on the final day each person would be asked to explain and show examples, narrative style to the group the scope of their journey for the week, to recap what they learned. It would be a conversation with the group... so we didn't have to waste time crafting up polished, scripted presentations.
Each day I posted a recap on our work, on the resources we explored, what we uncovered, and some thoughts for the next day. Those recaps can be viewed here:
As we explored... Folks started to have fun. Many people started working through breaks and through lunch. Many would come into class the next morning with tales of how they conquered certain things in the evening. We were building momentum.
To recap some of the projects that went on... folks took on blog creation for classes they teach, explored wikis, and web site creation. They explored Google Docs, Picasa, presentations and forms online... many to build skills to frame up their final capstone projects. Some took on Photoshop... a series of editing and photo enhancement projects. Some took on movie editing, via iMovie, and a series of explorations on the Reggio Emilia scope of documenting student work, creative student project ideas, and shooting and editing their own creations for classes, students, family... there were many threads. Again... each person chose their own path... and was subjected to the collective energy of the group.
Many of these folks had little to absolutely no experience in any of these mediums, and many had very little tech skill but a curiosity to... go. Over the days the projects kept evolving. Our bloggers evolved to explore mashup style sites where the integrated calendars, group editing, student leaders, including and posting video, Twitter feeds and hashtags searches, photo feeds... and all the group approaches to accounts and management. The Photoshop and video editors went from basic intros to spirited editing, project ideas with students, and some good personal projects and experiments. Many sought out ways to mash all these things all together for explorative, collaborative projects on the web with students and with peers. A big think tank that generated a lot of energy.
As a group:
We explored Twitter... new to most of them and saw how backchannel conversations can add depth and how, with some effort, you can find some great learning resources. I showed them who I subscribe to as a start.
We entered discussions on El Sistema, the hopeful project created by Jose Antonio Abreu. We entered a spirited discussion on the TED talk by Sugata Mitra and the many philosophical issues it tows. We explored some great posts by Chris Lehmann and a speech by Benjamin Zander, OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, podcasting and many web resources to promote folks to dive into personal passions.
I provided folks with as many resources as I could: Art sites, leads to great tutorials, projects, new tools, other innovative ed approaches, schools, conferences, project based learning examples, Lifelong Kindergarten at MIT, The High-Low Tech Group, Gary's extensive list of CMK resources... especially on programming and exploring integrating computers with creative capacity: Lilypad Arduino and Arduino, Logo, Scratch, Pico Cricket, GoGo Boards, 3D printing... to name just a few.
Along the way, the class blog evolved, changing many times in appearance and depth of content.
The final presentations, conversational style (so we didn't waste a bunch of time crafting polished presentations) were excellent. As a final, I asked that within the next few days, people draft a short, narrative summary of sorts on the class blog, an original post that spoke of their journey.
And folks absorbed it all within the scope of their projects and interests. Each person explored something relevant to their needs and curiosities, and I think opened some new doors. My hope is that the work inspired them to stay fresh, to take chances with kids, to learn together, and not to limit kids by what they may not know personally.
It was a great week. Great people, food, discussions, travels, and explorations.
As I stated earlier... I needed to recharge this Summer.
Here's what these travels this Summer did for me.
I've always taken risks in the jobs I've had, especially as a tech coordinator and as a teacher in the classroom. In the rLab, moving 20+ completely independent projects each semester is pretty common. It's a labor of love. With the project exploration we take in sweeping explorations of how technology is changing the world: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Here's a summary on our work. It's a direct challenge to conventional scripted learning... and for some it's not easy. Some students struggle mightily stepping away from being led down specific paths each day and choosing their own. I get concerned that it's such a struggle for some but am privileged to take a part in it... to rekindle that desire and approach to learn for themselves and seek out their goals.
The rLab spurs on many proposals for change on campus. Along with these ideas to loosen up conventional infrastructure, and (still lobbying) for 1-1 computing.... we're exploring new ground in schedule changes to promote flexibility, internships... to name just a few (many others are buried in the blog). The path of innovation in the rLab has challenged status quo.
There begins the challenge... the taxing nature of it. Creating new programs, lobbying for change, for flexibility... takes endless energy. Changes can be a slow, laborious maze often taking years to bring to fruition.
Over the last couple years... I've been worn down. Stalled initiatives, recurring discussions, meetings... Then education in the State and the Country... Act 60, and 68 (in Vermont), NCLB, calls for standardization, heavier assessments, standardized tests, Race to the Top, curriculum with more specified and scripted outcomes, commercialization, even answering a grievance over an innovative internship program back in the day... I found had slowed my resolve. I'm a voracious reader and over the last two years the articles and blog posts on education reform, countless numbers of them bitching but offering little to no solutions... along with the battles to innovate, and also the death of a good friend and colleague... all of it left me feeling drained.
I began to wonder if... for lack of a better term... if this was, well... 'it.' What should / could I do to promote more growth and creative opportunities? Along the way, some of my peers have encouraged me to finally go into administration. Should I? Where was 'my' future in education? Where was the future headed in education? Should I head toward another school? Another program? Perhaps even another country? Perhaps even another career?
What #CMK11 did... it reminded me that I'm not crazy.
I saw the flow of what I do in the Lab and in Grad classes I steer and practices I defend readily successfully practiced by many folks who I've gathered countless resources from over the years. My project at CMK? I wanted/needed to soak it all in, to watch how the mentors worked, and what the group got out of it... essentially to prove to myself that I wasn't nuts! I worked with some folks to put some of it into a documentary of sorts to do just that. I'm not sure how successful our scattered video edits were... but we did our best to document the courage to learn, explore, and create. It also revealed to me that I'm ready to sharpen my video editing skills ; )
Seeing what went on at CMK has encouraged me to dig deeper, to take more risks, to mentor more... and less actually when appropriate, and to refine my work in the lab and with peers as a mentor even further. It also inspired me to... 'take off my teacher hat and put on my learner hat' again as Gary put it. I needed to spend more time refreshing myself and taking on new challenges. The conference opened many new doors for me with connections, thoughts on the future, and to many innovative resources. The entire journey this Summer from helping take a great baseball team West, to the time at CMK, and casting this Grad Course helped me refresh... and I'm hungry for more.
I'm not nuts. I was just stagnant... and a bit bored.
Sharing lunch with Derrick Pitts and John Stetson, cupcakes with a large group at a round table with Marvin Minsky, and dinner with Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager was tremendous. I met Mitch Resnick and toured, uh... spontaneously so, the MIT Media Lab. I met and tinkered with Brian Smith, Artemis Papert, Brian Silverman, Lella Gandini, and author Jonothan Kozol... and of course the many, many spirited folks at the conference. All of it... recharged me.
The journey caused me to revisit some programs like the MIT Media Lab. I've been raking in information from the Reggio Emilia approach since returning from CMK, revisiting methodologies to foster growth in learning. It reminded me that I've been at this work for a long, long time. It reminded me that I haven't marketed myself as well as I should to open up more avenues to discuss it and learn with these folks.. not just from these folks. I love the conference scene, especially these new threads like Educon and CMK. I need to do more presenting again on the stories I have, the rLab, and my thoughts on education and learning. I need to meet new folks and make new connections again.
It opened me up again to the future... and where I might head rather than be concerned about how I might... or should get there.
I need to refine my approach on how I share our work here in the rLab and in these courses. I need to keep exploring, and see where it leads me into the future, what opportunities and friendships it opens up into the future. I'm ready to explore new adventures and opportunities.
Since I've been back these couple days, I've done those practical things like pay a few bills, do some laundry, and I've read a lot in a hammock (a relaxing Summer ritual of mine). I've looked over the reflections on the class site from Monterrey. I've seen that Will Richardson has moved to Tumblr and taken off on some great writing again. I've read read some great posts on TeachPaperless, read up on a new blog by Shelly Blake-Plock, and caught up on the posts by Chris Lehmann.
And I feel refreshed.
My sincere thanks and gratitude to the folks I've mentioned here in this long, long tale: The great folks in the Grad Class in Monterrey, the folks at #CMK11, and to those I've cited here that I've gathered inspiration from and who's materials I've shared.
I've already canceled my loosely knit plans to head to Germany next Summer in hopes to revisit the great folks in Monterrey and to explore more of Mexico. I'll seek out new opportunities to present at conferences, continue to blog and reflect... and explore the work of the great folks I've stumbled across this Summer... and stay in touch. I plan on heading back to Educon, to CMK and to sharpen my proposal further for a semester-long sabbatical... and to get into, at long last, my own Masters program. The extended degree will open new doors for me to teach and who knows what else. In this coming year hoping to meet more of the folks I've learned so much from on the web and in person. I hope to continue to develop these new friendships, start new ones, swap stories... and see where it leads me and my desire share and learn.
'Keep moving forward' is the motto I've used for years at the top of my class blog... if I ask my students to practice it readily... I'd better get busy doing it too.
Thanks for tuning in, Adam