Friday, March 16, 2012


It's Friday morning at CUE 2012. There are are several thousand teachers here in Palm Springs to learn more about educational technology and pedagogy.

So, can I write a blog post sitting on the floor in the back of a huge room filled with very tech savvy educators listening to Diane Ravitch? (Yes, I can.) She is speaking about the ability of technology to create student centered learning and overcome the omissions of textbooks. She is also speaking about corporate influence in educational technology and corporate greed focused on education. The rest will be a factoid filed, eye opening explanation of how the racket works with virtual schools and how this is bad for students and teachers.

I have lots of great sessions I want to attend, four really interesting things in the next session alone. Yesterday the gold nugget was a session about using iPads to teach history. My district is in the middle of a five year 1:1 rollout, and the IT department has just announced that teachers getting devices for their students this year will have iPads instead of netbooks. For us that means mostly history teachers, so I was thrilled to be able to attend this session. Cheryl Davis did an excellent job taking us through some hands on practice with three different lessons using a variety of apps, most of which were new to me. She will be presenting the session again at ISTE in June and I highly recommend it.

The other two sessions I went to yesterday were focused on Google tools. The highlight was Matt Schwartz getting a huge crowd of 300 to chant Yes, Yes, Yes to the Google tools in his session. Then he went on to show some great ways he is using them in his classroom. The other session on Google tools and the iPad, didn't help me see any new utility for Google and iPads. The same issues are still there.

I'm not sure yet what today will bring. There are at least three or four things in each session that I want to go to. Lots of friends are presenting at the same time. I tried marking my program with the things I want to see before I went to bed last night. I look forward to seeing where I end up.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Functional PLC

This morning I read a post about dysfunctional PLC's. It was posted and promoted heavily on Twitter by the author Joe Bower and several other well followed individuals.

It bothered me for several reasons. First, it seemed as though Joe was not writing from his own experience, but was basing his dysfunctional analysis on the hearsay of teachers he knows.  As he says,
"I have always been fortunate enough to be a part of a team where we respected each other enough to know that our instructional and assessment practices would differ based on our individual students' needs."
The rest of his post is about "some PLC's" and then goes on to include what he sees as the problems with those dysfunctional groups.  Unfortunately, a lot of what he saw as dysfunction my PLC views as our strengths.

Joe says, "Some PLCs meet for no other reason than to arrive at a "consensus" for how all the teachers will instruct and assess their students." That is exactly right.  Our 9th grade English team meets twice a week to check in with each other. We co-created all of our units based on the Common Core standards and we worked together to do it. We did use consensus and in the best sense of the word. We did not vote and impose the majority on the minority; we built a curriculum we could all agree on and if someone objected to something we took that veto seriously and worked it out.

We do not advocate what Joe objects to as a "one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning".  Our team came together because we were detracking our classes. We realized that we would need to support each other to be able to provide a differentiated curriculum to all of our students.  Our PLC time together is often spent creating materials that will work for our various levels of students, brainstorming ways to provide additional support for students who are struggling and looking at student work to consider our next steps.

Joe asserts that part of the rationale for PLC's is to "decrease the likelihood that a student or parent might complain about one teacher or favor another" but he says that is a farce because of course teachers are different.  He is right we are different, but we can all deliver a quality education to our students especially when we are working together. Some members of our team are literacy experts, others are really good at creating student materials quickly and I represent the ed tech strength. In isolation our differences would be maximized. Together we balance each other out and collectively improve the education students are getting in all of our classrooms.

Joe says, "There's a lot wrong with a PLC that standardizes teaching and learning," I really don't think so.  I see why he objects to teacher groups that vote on curriculum and impose the result on everyone. I don't think there is anything wrong with all teachers agreeing to use a common curriculum and supporting each other to do so.

Joe's post about dysfunctional PLC's leaves the reader with the impression that a PLC can become a very bad thing all too quickly.  There are groups who behave as he described, but they aren't PLC's and I am saddened that the term is now associated with dysfunction in the minds of many who might be just beginning to think about collaborating with their colleagues.

A group that isn't working well together needs to know more about examples of groups that do work well together.  Joe says. "I have had the opportunity to be a part of a work environment filled with professionals who were committed to help[ing] children."  The people in "some PLC's" who are not working functionally, or who attempt to impose a common curriculum without true consensus, are not less committed to helping children then those of us who have been able to build constructive PLC's. 

Our team meets twice a week, much more than the site requirement of every two weeks. We share a folder in Dropbox where we organize all of our materials by unit. (More on how we use Dropbox.) We communicate daily in email threads about a rather amazing array of subjects. I should add that I'm not the leader of this group. In fact, I was the last to join and the only one who has not taught 9th grade before. I would joke that I am the weakest link, but someone in the group would object and mention my contribution to technology integration in our units.  Without this team I would have worked way more hours this year preparing curriculum and second guessed myself much more frequently.
9th Grade Team 2011-2012

With this team I go to more meetings, but spend far less time creating curriculum while simultaneously delivering higher quality instruction to my students. With this team I look at my students work differently. Together we are a Professional Learning Community and we function quite well, thank you very much.

P.S. I could go on just as long about all the ways our team has been good for all of our students from the gifted to the struggling and every single child in between.

PSS. I'd also like to add that I have great respect for the way Joe Bower is questioning things about traditional education. We have a lot we need to look at. But, there is a great deal of good that happens when teachers honestly come together to support each other in teaching all students.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tech PD Day

Last week we pulled off an afternoon of free ed tech workshops for almost 200 educators who teach at my school and at our feeder schools. Thought I'd share how we did it.

For a few years a group of reps from each school have been meeting to align the ISTE NETS to the outcomes we could expect from students in each grade. That became our Digital Literacy Matrix.

From there our fearless leader, Scott Irwin, convinced the local principals that an afternoon of tech PD would be worth giving up their individual site PD and staff meetings etc. We surveyed teachers about what they knew and what they wanted to learn. We used that data to develop course offerings that fit their needs and we began begging teachers in the cluster to present or co-present.

I made up a Google Site to list the offerings and collect registrations from teachers. Being able to embed spreadsheets and link to Google Forms was critical to the success of that effort.

Once we closed registration, Scott used some ninja Word skills to convert my spread sheet of participants to some lovely name tags. We printed their sessions on the name tags to make things easier. We made up a flyer with a map and a list of available sessions, but the ROTC students who stood by in uniform to direct participants really helped people find their way around.

With a few notable hiccups our tech worked. It was inspiring to walk around and see so many teachers learning. The highlight though, was the third and fourth graders who came with their teacher to teach the wiki workshop. The kids taught it. The teacher took pictures. It was great seeing the adults learning from some very sharp and very short educators.

Feedback has been positive and I hope we will be able to do it again.
Total cost: $8.00 for the two boxes of Girl Scout cookies I bought to give to the ROTC students for their help. Well worth it.