Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, Here I am at . . . EdCampOmaha - Learning at an "Unconfernce"

After my experience at EdCamp Iowa, I decided to attend EdCamp Omaha.  Prior to attending an EdCamp, I was a little skeptical.  I was afraid that the "unconference" idea would result in unorganized sessions with a few people dominating the discussion by bragging about everything they do with little helpful advice for others or that it would become a gripe session with a small number of outspoken individuals complaining about all the problems they have to overcome.  I can be a bit of an introvert at times, especially if I don't have a predetermined role, so this idea was a little intimidating to me.  However, my qualms have proven unfounded as my experiences with EdCamps have been very positive.  The people I have met are passionate educators who love what they do and although many of them are already innovators, they continue to seek the input of other people without any preconceived notions of who is worth listening to.  Despite my hesitation, I have found myself speaking up and becoming a part of the conversation and it has been very rewarding.  I have met a lot of educators with whom I will continue to connect and who will further my ability to be an effective teacher.

I began EdCamp Omaha by attending a session on Twitter for educators.  A good chunk of this session focused on the benefits Twitter can offer educators and how to maximize these benefits. Although I have some experience using Twitter for professional learning, it was nice to hear some different ideas about using social media to form an effective PLN.  This session allowed me to expand my PLN while learning of some new hashtags to follow and new ed chats that I plan to check out.  I also learned of several new tools for managing Twitter feeds.  I have not played with these yet, but based on descriptions in this session, they seem to have promise.  IFTTT allows users to automatically have favorited tweets saved to Evernote, creating a system for bookmarking from Twitter.  Topsy is a tool for searching Twitter.  Echofon, Twitterrific, and Tweetbot are tools for managing tweets.

The second session I attended was about connected learning environments.  This session consisted of small group discussions on several different topics then we shared takeaways with the large group. There were some very informative, thought-provoking discussions about what connected learning looks like, instructional strategies that promote connected learning, necessary elements (devices, support, etc.) that allow for connected learning, and how to overcome potential obstacles.  One of the best things about this session was having the chance to discuss what others are doing and how different educators view connected learning.  I enjoyed the structure, which allowed for smaller, intimate discussions, while still providing an opportunity to hear from those in other groups.  My group also discussed the importance of teaching digital citizenship so students learn how to interact with others online.  I feel pretty strongly about the possibilities offered by connected learning and the benefits it can offer students and I enjoyed discussing how to move everyone (district/building leadership, teachers, students, and parents) toward this mindset.

After lunch I attended a session on game-based learning.  Much of the discussion in this session focused on ways to gamify a class, even without the use of technology.  Attendees shared ways of using badges (both digital and paper) as a reward system, methods to frame competency-based activities as levels, and student-created board games.  There was also a brief discussion of the use of Minecraft as an instructional tool.  There were some good discussions in this session and I did take a few ideas away that I can apply to my classroom, but I felt that much of the discussion was focused toward younger students than I see in high school.

The final session I attended dealt with creating global connections for students.  Once again, many of the examples and ideas from this session might be more relatable for younger students, however, there were definitely some things I can apply and/or adapt to meet my instructional needs.  I have heard of mystery Skyping, but had never talked to anyone who has done it with their class, so that was definitely interesting.  I also enjoyed hearing the various ways educators have promoted collaboration and sharing by connecting their students to other classes or experts around the globe. Participants shared ideas about using Skype in the Classroom, EduHangout, blogs, read alouds, and passion/genius hour projects.  The idea of creating a more globally connected classroom is something that I have been wanting to incorporate into my teaching, so it was good to hear some ideas of how other educators have implemented plans to do so.

Overall, I felt like my day at EdCamp Omaha was a very rewarding day.  I learned a lot, met a number of innovative, enthusiastic teachers, and I left feeling very energized about implementing new ideas within my classroom.  I have had great experiences attending EdCamps and I plan to attend more in the future.  And, as an added bonus, I won two boxes of golf balls, a golf towel, and an EdCamp Omaha t-shirt in the drawing at the end (this might have been a little more exciting if I was a golfer!).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Roasting S’more Educational Ideas at Edcamp Iowa

Over the last few years I have heard a lot about the Edcamp movement.  Nearly everything I have ever read about Edcamps is positive, with many teachers raving about how invigorating it is to attend a camp.  This weekend I finally attended my first Edcamp, along with two of the most innovative teachers I know (my wife and my brother) and I was impressed. 
Edcamps are a free conference (or unconference) meant to provide a participatory environment that meets the needs of teachers looking to share ideas while networking with like-minded educators.  One of the major differences between an Edcamp and a traditional conference is that there are no sessions set ahead of time.  As participants arrive, they propose session ideas they would like to facilitate.  The sessions themselves also differ from a traditional conference.  Rather than one presenter sharing their expertise, the session leader acts as a facilitator, leading a discussion that draws upon the collective expertise of all in attendance.  Attendees are encouraged to find sessions that meet their needs as educators and, thus, are encouraged to leave a session if they do not feel they are benefitting from the discussion. 
Edcamp Iowa, with 5 locations across the state, was the biggest Edcamp event in the country.  I attended the Central Iowa event at Southeast Polk Junior High School.  Immediately upon entering the building I began making connections with other educators, a trend that would continue throughout the day.
The first session I attended was “Establishing Collaboration and Inquiry within School and District.”  This session resulted in a good discussion about PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) within schools and districts as a means of collaboration.  Teachers, administrators, and representatives from the Iowa and Nebraska Departments of Education all chimed in with their own experiences and thoughts about the benefits as well as problems with implementing PLCs.  I enjoyed the discussions of how schools can best facilitate teacher learning and the importance of allowing teachers some freedom in their professional growth.  I was also very impressed to hear about Waukee Schools’ implementation of PLCs on a district-wide basis that allows for collaboration between schools on a regular basis.
My second session was “Sharing Technology Between Classes.”  This was a much more sparsely attended session with only 6 participants, but it resulted in a good discussion of technological resources different teachers have utilized, problems teachers have faced with technology, the roles that students/teachers/administrators can or should play in integrating technology in a school/district, and what the integration of technology should look like in a classroom.  I enjoyed this discussion and I learned of a few new resources that I need to check out.  I was also very impressed with a high school principal that attended this session.  It was very exciting to see a principal seeking out the opinions of the teachers and technology coach in the room as to what building leadership can do to help with technology integration.
The third session I attended is the one I felt like I knew the least what to expect from.  This session was called “Rocks or Sucks,” which apparently is a staple of Edcamps.  The facilitator calls out a hot topic in education (such as homework, network filters, Common Core, etc.) and participants move to a side of the room to indicate whether they feel this “Rocks” or “Sucks.”  Those that are unsure (the mugwumps—because their mug faces one way, while their wump points in the opposite direction) are able to stay in the middle.  Each group has one minute to discuss their feelings with the other people who share their beliefs.  Then there is a five minute discussion/debate where each of the three groups (rocks, sucks, and mugwumps) explains the rationale for their beliefs.  This was kind of a fun session which resulted in some lively discussions of current issues in education.
The final session I attended was “Teaching Problem Solving & Critical Thinking Skills -- How to Make Kids Think!”  I had a lot of interest in all of the sessions, but this one seemed especially intriguing to me as I have tried hard to make my classroom a student-centered, inquiry-driven learning environment.  It was interesting to hear the strategies different teachers have tried to promote problem solving and critical thinking within the classroom.  The discussion also turned toward ways that teachers can promote more parental involvement in implementing problem solving strategies away from school.  This topic is of great interest to me and the discussion at Edcamp Iowa led me to want to seek out more strategies promoting problem solving and critical thinking within my class.
In addition to the sessions I attended, I also followed #edcampiowa on Twitter throughout the day.  This allowed me to gain some insight into other sessions occurring at all 5 sites across the state of Iowa.  It was interesting to hear about the different sessions around the state, while following discussions that began in sessions and spilled over to Twitter after the sessions ended.  There were also people who posted resources for those of us who were not in attendance at different sessions.
My first Edcamp experience was definitely a positive one, and one that I will seek out again in the future.  It was very motivating to be surrounded by so many passionate educators who sought out this opportunity to learn from others to improve their ability to educate young people.  I enjoyed the format of Edcamp and its participatory nature.  My wife (who is a middle school social studies teacher) equated it to a Twitter chat.  I think this is a very good analogy; both are very participatory in nature and place a good deal of emphasis on the needs of the participants over the agenda of the presenter.  Edcamp Iowa also allowed me to make a lot of new connections and to expand my PLN.
After my experience with Edcamp Iowa, I am going to try to attend Edcamp Omaha in two weeks on March 22.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I’ll trade you 2 Hitlers for 1 Churchill - Creating Trading Cards of WWII Leaders

As we begin studying World War II, I like to ensure that my students are familiar with the major world leaders.  This allows them to recognize the trend toward totalitarian governments and how this was a contributing factor in the outbreak of World War II.  It also familiarizes students with names and forms of government that will come up again over the course of our study of World War II
Over the years I have used several different lesson ideas to allow students to investigate these world leaders.  This year I decided to have students create trading cards to illustrate key concepts related to each leader.  Students were assigned a leader to investigate and determine how they came to power, the form of government each utilized (including a brief explanation of how it worked), ways they helped their country, how they abused their power, and the role they played in World War II.
After students gather this information, they are ready to create their trading cards.  Over the years I have used a number of different tools for this activity.  The first time I had students create trading cards, I made a template in Microsoft Word for them to use.  Other times I have used My Trading Cards or ReadWriteThink’s Trading Card Creator.  This year I decided to use Big Huge Lab’s Trading Cards because I felt like its layout was the easiest for students to include the required information.
This lesson went very well.  With a little guidance, students did a nice job locating the necessary information and they seemed to enjoy the task of creating trading cards.  It allowed some freedom and creativity of expression while still achieving my goals for the lesson.  Depending on the level of the class, the amount of time available for the lesson, and access to resources, the teacher may want to provide selected readings or primary sources for students to use to investigate their assigned leaders.
This is an activity that is adaptable to many different topics.  At different times, I have used similar lessons to allow students to investigate the Founding Fathers, Progressive Era reformers, 1920s cultural personalities, and civil rights leaders.  This activity can be used for any lesson where the desired outcome is familiarization with individuals who played an important role in history.