Oudoor Networks

I spent the better part of last week in the woods.

With my teaching partner and our 27 students – one left behind to combat continued health issues – and my youngest sister in tow, we left school just after 6:30 Thursday morning and made our way with the help of assorted parent-drivers and a U-Haul to the local ferry terminal. We were on our way to the island.

Once across the Straight of Juan de Fuca, we set out south on 29 bicycles down the Galloping Goose Trail, a gravelly path that connects Sydney to Victoria through bright groves of maple and alder forests lined with California poppies and views of the Cascades to the south. Our aim was Goldstream Provincial Park, some sixty kilometers from the dock; we were under our own steam, and spent more than six hours reaching our destination in time to set up camp, make dinner, and light a dim campfire before dark and a much needed rest. Immediately, our students were transformed from a group who studied theoretically to one which was required to make practical use of the concepts of planning and leadership curriculum, as well as the deeper pursuits of team building and self-awareness. Outside the classroom, the concepts, quotations and ‘wisdom’ of our course’s methods became tested in real time.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or it it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Henry David Thoreau

More than someone who aggressively enjoys nature, I am a teacher who would not be doing what I am if not for my participation in outdoor education. Throughout university I made steady practice of camping at every opportunity, stealing away from Little Rock on weekends (and more than a few weekdays) to sleep amongst the cicadas and brown recluses of the Ozark wilderness. For three years I balanced my burgeoning career as entertainment editor of my school’s paper and liberating study of creative writing (after a short-lived stint as a chemistry major) with hours spent exploring the Buffalo and White Rivers, Greers Ferry Lake while down south, and making a home of the Sea-to-Sky corridor and Duffy Lake Road when back at home. At twenty one, I was introduced to Christopher McCandless through the pages of John Krakaur’s excellent book, Into the Wild, and felt a kindered spirit in the waderlusting youth who did nothing to help me remain faithful to my studies – not to mention decimating my ambitions of employment post-graduation.

But this managed to change one summer morning when my track coach – long frustrated with the string of injuries I had incurred since arriving at the age of seventeen – called from Arkansas to tell me about a scholarship opportunity in need of male applicants. Enter my tenure with the Boy Scouts of America, as my fellowship in the newly-created scholars program enlisted me to participate in not only 160 hours of community service (difficult with my athletic schedule) but a summer-internship as well, which saw me living for seven consecutive weeks in the northwestern wilds of Arkansas with some sixty young “teachers.” As the primary means for many Scouts to earn more intensive merit badges – lifesaving, sailing, orienteering, wilderness survival, shotgun (seriously) – summer camp ran as five days of hour-long instructional classes scattered across the Gus Blass Scout Reservation’s 3500 acres. I worked there for three summers, garnering a great deal of respect for our relationship to the natural world and how, when community is achieved between people in its company, we each live out some of our best selves.

“Look well of to-day – for it is the Life of Life. In its brief course lie all the variations and realities of your life – the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For Yesterday is but a dream, and Tomorrow a vision. But To-day well-lived makes every Yesterday a dream of happiness, and every To-morrow a vision of hope. For Time is but a scene in the eternal drama. So, look well of To-day, and let that be your resolution as you awake each morning and salute the New Dawn. Each day is born by the recurring miracle of Dawn, and each night reveals the celestial harmony of the stars.”

Mike the Logger

I learned much of leading and exercising my own potential in these groups built in the woods, and brought just as much enthusiasm to my early classrooms as I did to afternoon workshops of the rudimentary breast stroke and fetching the weight from the deep end in the cicada-bordered lake. The past two years I have enjoyed “Adventure Trips” with my class: student-organized – from menus to daily itineraries, cleaning rosters and the procuring of equipment – trips focused around the physical challenges offered out of doors. Faced with the common struggle of the island’s roadways, the class fought with their bikes and aching muscles, triumphs and personal limitations, supporting one another in the learning process which like life is universal and yet resolutely individual to each of us.

“Our task was to represent an island in the world, a prototype perhaps, or at least a prospect of a different way of life. I, who had been isolated for so long, learned about the companionship which is possible between people who have tasted complete loneliness. I never again hankered after the tables of the fortunate and the feasts of the blessed. Never again did envy or nostalgia overcome me when I witnessed the collective pleasures of others. And gradually I was initiated into the secret of those who wear the sign in their faces. We who wore the sign might justly be considered ‘odd’ by the world; yes, even crazy, and dangerous. We were aware, or in the process of becoming aware, and our striving was directed toward achieving a more and more complete state of awareness while the striving of others was a quest aimed at binding their opinions, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely to those of the herd.”

Hermann Hesse 

As it serves to end our class’ year together – when our grade tens will move on into the general student body, and the grade nines will move up to become mentors to the incoming nines – the adventure trip begins as a practical examination of teamwork and the group members’ individual challenges, and yet invariably ends as an adjourning ceremony whereby each student – and teacher, and sister visiting the group as extra mandated supervision – recognizes their worth in the eyes of others, and acknowledges the worth of community. As eluded to in my recent post about comprehensive assessment methods, this is the underlying focus and the intrinsic value of our program’s model: that one’s struggle in life is a personal one, that growth is individual, yet supported by others, and that trust in one’s self, one’s peer’s and one’s environment is key. Our education system is struggling to find ways to form students as active learners, willing to take risks and invest themselves in collaborative projects involving critical thinking and problem solving. When asked how such outcomes might be met, the act of unplugging and experiencing the natural world may still provide the greatest teacher.

After all, it may be an old idea which allows us to move forward. Seth Godin at TED:

 

Networked Teaching: A First Installment

I teach a two-year gifted program which covers the curriculums of English 9, 10 and 11* (if there are capabable learners), Social Studies 9 and 10 1, Math 9, 10 & 11* (again, with the proper students), Science 9 and 10, as well as ministry-mandated Career and Personal Planning, and extra-elective Leadership 11 2.

I have taught in this highly flexible and interdisciplinary environment for two years now, and have found great traction in the use of various technologies to further the aims of our program’s bedrock Betts Autonomous Learner Model, which espouses the following:

 The purpose of the model is to teach gifted learners strategies for and attitudes toward independant learning.

Autonomous Learner Model

In bits and pieces I have seen the power of collaborative work in the classroom, from Wikis to develop class notes, discussion boards to facilitate peer editing, and publishing on Wikibooks to integrating the vastness of web information and access to each individual’s area of passion or expertise. At the same time I have come to unify my own pursuits in lifelong learning around the totems of RSS, social networks and my classroom and school, where my own learning – as well as that of my students – is fueled with the cooperation and expertise of a continuous conversation about methodology and practice.

At its core our gifted program harnasses the power of community into its ethos and structure, creating an environment where teachers (facilitators, under the Betts description) and students (learners) are each striving for growth and knowledge on a daily basis. Key to the facilitator’s strength in creating such an environment, where learners are empowered to pursue their individual curiosities, is the notion of transparent learning. Past incarnations of our school’s gifted students program have seen teachers participating in Night of the Notables events, and my teaching-partner and I routinely and candidly participate in class discussions of group processes and creative writing exercises used as reflections upon our own learning with the class. Though it is unlikely that Betts foresaw today’s development in network-science which has emerged, the model clearly sees exponential potential in expanding the learning environment beyond the classroom that is facilitated with the read-write web.

Growing Networks

The shape of a social network helps determine a network’s usefulness to its individuals. Smaller, tighter networks can be less useful to their members than networks with lots of loose connections (weak ties) to individuals outside the main network. More open networks, with many weak ties and social connections, are more likely to introduce new ideas and opportunities to their members than closed networks with many redundant ties. In other words, a group of friends who only do things with each other already share the same knowledge and opportunities. A group of individuals with connections to other social worlds is likely to have access to a wider range of information. It is better for individual success to have connections to a variety of networks rather than many connections within a single network. Similarly, individuals can exercise influence or act as brokers within their social networks by bridging two networks that are not directly linked (called filling structural holes).

The power of social network analysis stems from its difference from traditional social scientific studies, which assume that it is the attributes of individual actors—whether they are friendly or unfriendly, smart or dumb, etc.—that matter.

Social Network: Facts, Discussion Forum and Encyclopedia Article

Clarence Fisher writes eloquently in response to the above:

What does this look like in a classroom? The smaller, tight social network mentioned at the beginning of the piece would be the students immediately present in the single space of one classroom. Certainly a useful network and one able to share it’s knowledge. But as it states in the quote: “a group of friends who only do things with each other already share the same knowledge and opportunities.” This network needs to grow and expand in order for new ideas and opportunities to emerge. Our students need their own networks outside of the immediate classroom and this often terrifies people involved with formal education. We are used to the role of being the finder and provider of all information in our spaces. We tend to see ourselves as the channel from which unknown information comes flowing into our classrooms.

But this is not right. We are not a network by ourselves. We are one node in a network.

Remote Access

 Across a variety of units this year I had students undertake various pieces of networked learning: contacting experts across the globe, producing reliable web-information themselves, as well as collecting and investigating areas of interest in individualized and self-directed units where accountibility is placed most prominently at the peer or self level. But in a manner that has mirrored the stumbling development of my own personal learning network – which I see to some degree culminated in the creation of this blog – I have failed to see the means by which I might incorporate the diverse threads of classroom web tools and resolutely demolish the boundaries separating my stude- learners’ study of Socials and English 3, unifying not only each learner’s course of study in what shape up as busy semesters, but presenting each facilitator as truly that:

fa·cil·i·ta·tor
Pronunciation: fə-ˈsi-lə-ˌtā-tər Function: noun 
: one that facilitates ; especially : one that helps to bring about an outcome (as learning, productivity, or communication) by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision <the workshop’s facilitator kept discussion flowing smoothly>
Merriam Webster

 As echoed in Bloom’s taxonomy (another model which extrapolated to include the prospects of the digital age suits the predictability required of a sound theory), the scope of ambition required to enable consistent higher-order questioning is attainable through the networked learning prized by many prominent educational technology thinkers. The notion, too, that the act of watching someone learn enables learning, is key to the practice sought in such learning environments. Beneath the disparate pieces of my implemenation of networked learning, there lies a unifying purpose in synthesis that enacts the varied philosophies which ground my current teaching and learning. As I look toward summer, and the prospect of my third year of gifted teaching, I hope to form the construct of a learning environment that begins and ends in the classroom, and the personal bonds which are forged through the nurturing of an immediate social network, but which is fueled through the connections available in the fostering of individual networks across the globe.

World Wide Web

To this end I will be attempting to enact Clarence’s Five Ideas for Moving in this Direction:

1.) Give your students time to find connections with people and content around the globe. If we want them to be connected, we must make this a priority. They need time to search, to surf, and to read, watch and listen to content made by others. Don’t see this as “extra.”

2.) Have conferences with the students in your class on a regular basis about who they are reading, watching and listening to. Ask questions. “Why are you reading that? What have you learned from that source lately?”

3.) Help your students to find new nodes of connection. Make regular contact with other teachers and classes around the globe who are prosumers of digital content. Keep a blogroll, an email list, a delicious account, etc. Knowing your students better than anyone else, you can make suggestions to them about people they might enjoy reading.

4.) Allow your students to have individual networks they work with. This is vital. They all don’t need to be subscribing to and reading the same content. A larger, loose network will allow ideas from different parts of the globe to flow into your space. While as the teacher you certainly need to be ensuring that your students are safe online and reading information that is appropriate for your place, encourage them to add additional sources of information outside of those that you have officially sanctioned.

5.) Content comes to us in all sorts of modes. Don’t restrict yourself and your students to just reading blogs. Find news sources from around the world, YouTube channels, podcasts, flick groups and delicious accounts. Kids need to learn how to locate content in all of its forms and dig out the valuable pieces of it. They need to learn how to filter information more and schools need to filter it less.

  1. These first five are taught by myself.
  2. The maths and sciences are evaluated by my teaching partner, while we share our observations of class activities and projects to evaluate Planning and Leadership
  3. Why stop there, though: student-based personal network learning could unify the breadth and scope of all of our myriad sujects.

Everyday Pro-D vs. Pro-D Every Day

“Certainly there are many models of spaces where kids can learn. From museums to home schooling situations, there are many models that are possible. But when it comes to the formal learning space, I’m starting to think that we are spending huge amounts of energy and dollars in the wrong place. We pump millions of dollars into schools and hope for the trickle down model of success. We support buildings and programs, hoping that teachers will “buy – in.” Of course there are great models of individual PD where teachers are supported on an ongoing basis to change and be successful. But I still think that most of our time, energy and dollars are being spent at the divisional and the school level.”

Remote Access – Replicating Classrooms

Last Thursday I saw a post on Twitter alerting me to more goings on at Karl Fisch’s Fischbowl: it seems Anne Smith’s English class (whom I’d been following whilst she and Karl arranged for “virtual” school board members to participate on ninth grade students’ presentations arguing in favour or against traditionally contested andor banned novels) had arranged to Skype conference with Little Brother author Cory Doctorow (download Little Brother).  I first heard Doctorow’s name a month ago, “lurking” in Ms. Quach’s English 12 Band online discussion board as the class debated several titles, and heard more than a few times of the ferocious conversation Little Brother had sparked in bookclubs that freckled our local suburban coffeehouses (as per the requirements of the assignment!). I passed along Karl’s 140 character message, and later that same day saw that Cindy had set up her students to join the video chat this coming week.

Retweet vb: (within the Twitter community) A social gesture indicating the endorsement of an idea. See: The most Re-Tweeted urls on the Net

I had a post on the go – which morphed into the tutorials post below, but may still somewhere see the light of day – which discussed the inability of school and district based professional development to meet the diverse learning needs of any community of teachers. As I mentioned with relation to Mr. Nabokov, teachers must represent the totality of human diversity to meet education’s democratic ideals, and in this sense a few scattered days across the school year – where oftentimes a sense of obligation creates apathy resulting in, say, a school district changing its Pro-D schedules such that large swaths of teachers wouldn’t be able to slip out at lunch – is a paltry effort to maintain the perpetual and individual development of myriad teacher-learners.

The hair used to stand up on the back of my neck when student-teachers in my PDP module would ask what to do in specific classroom situations – “If a student says…” “When I’m marking a test…” Our job is not one for which one can be prepared through rigorous ‘training,’ and such questions were the mark of future practitioners who would see their diplomas – no doubt in the same light they would see their recent 45′ pro-d session on assessment – as a badge that might somehow mark the terminus of their growth and learning.  This is the same thinking that believes education is about answers and not questions, and that there might be a theoretical ‘finish line’ somewhere that we might cross unto the safety of steady employment, a committed relationship, corporate ascension, or the lofty dreams of retirement. But such thoughts undercut the truth that learning is about questions and uncertainty, neither of which we should seek to end if we are to grow and learn, and which each must be supported more consistantly than once every-other month.

Fittingly, it is Twitter which brings this post full-circle, as the above ‘tweet’ set off a post by Will Richardson entitled, “Continual, Collaborative, On the Job Learning,” which addressed the idea of professional development on an individual, daily basis. Timely, in that our English Department was leaping, at the very moment, into the prospect of a blog to communicate amongst ourselves about all things teacherly (only to be followed shortly after by this effort, as well as Cindy’s), as it seemed the final piece in the ‘Network Puzzle’ of Rss feeds, Twitter, Bookmarks, and Wikis in our classrooms. Speaking for all of us who have discovered this new realm of Pro-D, Cindy  remarked in one of the Dept. blog’s first posts:

“I have learned and reflected upon my practice more intensely and willingly in the last two weeks then I have in the last two years.  I have read fresh research, connected to educators from around the world, had conversations and asked questions.  The more I learn, the more I want to learn. “

Doesn’t sound like your everyday pro-d.

 

Building a Personal Learning Network

The great challenge of the new age of information, where the “total amount of digital information will double every eleven hours,” will be that of sifting through waves of minutia to locate and be in touch with what is relevant to each individual. This affects not only our classrooms — in that web-literacy will enable students to see through the fact that even though a search for MartinLutherKing.org yields a hate site as Google’s first source (not only that, apparently the Pacific Northwest’s Tree Octopus is endangered!), it may not be the most reliable source of information for next year’s Black History Month Independent Study — but our own professional development, as we struggle to work net-exploration into the business of our daily teaching loads and the tantalizing sunshine outside.

 

I have had success with three web tools that, used in the chorus of an extended personal learning network, have made the vast expanses of the web much more manageable and personally focused:

 

·         Google Reader: Google Reader acts as a subsection to your Gmail Account that enables you to subscribe to various internet pages of interest -> news sites, educational blogs, and on and on. Here is an instructional video to get you started: Getting Started with Google Reader.

 

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·         Delicious Bookmarks: Ok, so your Google Reader is keeping you up to date with a personalized array of articles, web pages and other ‘net resources: What to do now? Archive and organize these pages with a Delicious account (Here’s the instructional video for this one: Using Del.icio.us); creating a network of educators already using the site casts a wide net (ba-dump-ching) for filtering relevant articles and material. It is also easy to search by topics – education, social studies, literature, etc – and turn up the most “marked” pages of each day. This is what is meant by Social Bookmarking. Find us: Dave Matheson, Mark Liao, Cindy Quach, Bryan Jackson, and Dave Truss.

 

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·         Twitter: You’ve heard about it, but for fear of plummeting into the abyss of teen-texting-Facebooker’s online existence, haven’t thought much past the “What is Twitter?” In short – as Twitter is all about brevity – Twitter enables users to build a network (there is a common theme here), and thereby “follow” (this is Twitter’s self-developed – not to mention creepy – term for “friending” someone) 140-character updates of people you are interested in hearing from.  In plain English? Here’s the video 

 

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Really, there is nothing too techie about any of this: all three sites are très user-friendly, and once set up can become a singular thread of infinitesimal webformation that is personalized by your own personal selections as well as those suggested by the people in your various networks. The time-to-result ratio is more than favourable: unless endless Google searches or reading the Vancouver Sun aren’t getting in the way of keeping up to date.