Expanding our Community – Social Media as Professional Development

This new learning world is about participation,
not just consumption, and it’s only with that participation that the real
connections can happen.

The Inquiry Context

A common thread through my 10 years as a teacher has been a passion for literacy and professional development.  I have spent countless hours developing my own understanding of curriculum and pedagogy through workshops, in service, reading and writing; however, over the past few years I have found a new interest in working with and supporting colleagues in their own professional development.  As a literacy and numeracy support teacher for the past 3 years, mentorship and professional development has become not only a passion, but part of my job.  Choosing a new literacies practice which focuses on professional development, therefore came quite naturally. Personal circumstances also inspired my inquiry decision.  Recently on leave from teaching, I found that I wanted to stay connected to my colleagues on a professional level and wanted to stay abreast of current research and resources.  I discovered that through social media I was able to meet these needs. Seeing the opportunities offered through online professional development I set out to explore how social media can support professional development in the dynamic teaching and learning context of the 21st century.

Coming into this assignment I was not a novice social media user. On a personal level, I had been using various social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to stay connected with friends and family from around the world.  I appreciated the ease and flexibility I was offered, the growing community I could connect with and the relatively simple and user-friendly platforms.  On a professional level, I had used blogging as a means of connecting with students and parents through a classroom blog using Blogger and more recently moved to using Edmodo as a home/school communication tool. Through these experiences I felt quite comfortable navigating the social media world.

With an interest in social media, an acute awareness of the changing landscape of literacy and questions around the effectiveness of traditional pro-d models, I set out on my inquiry with the following questions in mind:

  • How can I merge my outsider activities with social media to my insider practice?
  • What social media tools will I find most useful to meet my pro-d needs?
  • How can social media enhance professional development?

According to the Research

There is no denying that we are living, working and learning in a time of rapid change.  Within this context our social interactions, forms of communication, and the methods we use to search and gather information are being transformed.  With new media and new literacies we find that “Being a literate person in today’s society involves more than being able to construct meaning from a printed text.  A literate person needs to be able to ‘read’ and ‘write’ and learn with texts that have multimodal elements such as print, graphic design, audio, video, gesture, and nonstop interaction” (Vacca, Vacca & Maraz, 2014. p. 33).  Will Richardson (2013) suggests that the proliferation of technology and the influences of the web demand an ecological change in education.  More than just layering technology on traditional practices, schools need to focus on the needs of the learner.  Richardson asks, “What if we focused on developing kids who are ‘learners’ instead of trying to make sure they’re ‘learned’? What if, instead of delivering the same, common education to every student, we focused on developing the skills and dispositions necessary for them to learn whatever they need to learn whenever they need to learn it? That means rethinking classrooms to focus in individualized passions, inquiry, creation, sharing, patient problem solving, and innovation” (p. 14).

Research shows that Richardson’s thinking can be applied to professional development. Working within the same parameters, professional development needs to undergo its own ecological revolution.  Richard Beach argues that, “as classrooms change and as students bring more digital capabilities and sensibilities to school than ever before, our PD mechanisms also need to change” (2012, p. 256).  Traditional workshop models of pro-d are viewed as ineffective and teachers desire flexibility, individualization, increased collaboration and integrated support to meet the demands of teaching in a digital world.

Goals of professional development include supporting teachers’ understanding of current practice to provide meaningful learning experiences for their students. However, “Current professional development (PD) often does not effectively support teachers in transforming their instruction. One-shot workshops – ‘professional development’ days with little direct connections to classrooms, coaching support, or follow-up – often have minimal impact on teachers (Beach, p. 256). The success of educational reform rests in the success and effectiveness of professional development.  The continued prominence of mandated, short term pro-d proves to be “inadequate strategies for bringing about change” (McConnell, Parker, Eberhardt, Koehler, Lundeberg 2012, p. 267).  As an alternative, online professional development offers on-going, open ended platforms with an endless number of potential collaborators.

While traditional models of professional development provide opportunities for collaboration, teachers continue to be passive recipients of information.  Richardson and Mancabelli point out, “This new learning world is about participation, not just consumption, and it’s only with that participation that the real connections can happen” (2011, p. 37).  Social media is participatory by nature and teacher involvement in online pro-d connects them to a global community of colleagues with similar interests and inquiries. Through social media sites such as Twitter, teachers can become members of professional learning communities which focus on problem solving, planning, assessment and curriculum development (Beach, 2012).  The constraints associated with pre-determined or directive face- to-face pro-d are eliminated with social media as an, “online forum can support professional learning by giving teachers a platform for interacting with other professionals and providing a place to discuss current issues and trends” (Byington, 2011. pp. 282-283). Furthermore, Trinkle shares “A feature of PLCs that Twitter exemplifies better than many face- to-face communities is the ‘collective inquiry into best practice’ (Darfour 2008). By choosing whom you follow, you choose the best practices for your personal interests…and educators who Twitter, though spread out across the globe, are working together in a collaborative community for their professional development (2008, 18)” (2009 p. 22). The affordance of choice gives teachers a sense of ownership which increases their investment in developing personal practice (Bostock 2012, p. 223).  In addition to Twitter, research shows that blogs are effective online tools for collaboration. Blogs support the synthesis of ideas, connections with other teachers, communication around common interest (Richardson & Mancabelli, p. 50) and allow participants to access information at any time through archived conversations (Byington, p. 283).  Beyond collaboration, online professional development affords teachers the flexibility they desire, “Technology is providing new opportunities for creating professional connections within the field of education by eliminating time and space constraints” (Byington, p. 290).  Finding time within work schedules is not as challenging and cost restrictive as online learning and collaboration can take place in an ongoing, limitless timeframe.

When considering the necessity of educational reform to support 21 century learners, the research shows that increased meaningful professional development with digital tools and platforms is essential for sustained change.  As teachers develop their own digital insider perspective, they increasingly understand the skills they must bring to their literacy instruction (Colwell, Hutchinson & Reinking 2012, p. 233).  According to Bostock, “Active involvement in using digital technologies will enable teachers to better understand how to develop the types of learning activities that will be engaging and meaningful for their students, many of whom are familiar with these practices in their lives outside of school” (p. 223).

Personal Experience with Social Media as Pro-D

Resource sharing and gathering, I discovered, was one of the most useful elements of social media as professional development.  By choosing particular people or organizations to follow on Twitter I shared in their common interests and utilized the information they had to offer. With the favourites feature, I could save Tweets with links, inspirations, images and lesson ideas.  Furthermore, I could directly share the learning boards and pearls I created on Learnist and Pearltrees through sharing features on their sites. Collecting resources was simple with Pearltrees. I found that I could simply use their bookmarking tool to compile pearls (their version of a file) on specific topics. For example, whenever I came across a good website, blog, Youtube video, or image on digital citizenship I would add the link to my pearl.  Pearltrees has become one of my favourite digital tools as I finally have a place to efficiently collect the resources I come across. While Learnist is a good social bookmarking tool for searching information I have begun using it more to create my own learning boards which I can share with students and colleagues.  The layout of the learning board is more conducive, I believe, to sharing in a class, in a workshop, or with a group than Pearltrees as it is linear and the learnings (the links within a learning board) can be organized sequentially.

While comfortable with most of the navigational aspects of social media, I found that I had to overcome the fear of writing for an audience of my peers.  Writing for my blog was particularly stressful in the beginning as the nature of blogging invites opinion writing, personal perspective and experience – not to mention that I was being assessed for my Masters program. My opinions, writing abilities (or inabilities!) thoughts and feelings would be public property. With audience in mind, I had to craft my writing to assure the digital
footprint I was creating was one that portrayed a critical thinker who could support her ideas, and a reflective, supportive professional.  Finding myself in the position of writing in a public forum, with audience and voice in mind helped me understand the importance of explicit writing instruction in these areas for my own students. Students are likely writing more today than they ever have due to the connections they maintain in social media and through emailing, blogging, creating fanzines etc which means they need to be able to choose appropriate voice to fit their purpose and audience. Like the teachers in Bostock’s research, I “came to appreciate that these digital literacies were, in fact, a new and important language, a language that deserves recognition in the classroom curriculum as a significant form of communication” (p. 229).

I also went through a number of hair-pulling moments when transferring my blog from Blogger to WordPress. While it initially looked like a simple one or two-step process I quickly discovered that Blogger and WordPress work quite differently. I spent the better part of two days learning the new platform, making mistakes, emailing the helpdesk, watching how-to videos on Youtube and finally phoning my cousin who is a graphic and web designer who uses WordPress. In the end I was proud of the blog I created and pleased with the utility it offered viewers; however, I was slightly disheartened as it is quite simple in appearance and did not reflect the HOURS that went into its creation.  I did think of my colleagues a number of times throughout those two days and wondered how many would invest the same time in creating a professional development tool.  This could be a deterrent for many teachers and why Colwell, et al. suggest that “teachers not inclined to integrate digital forms of literacy into their practice may be more likely to do so with a tool that requires novice-level technical competence and minimal professional development” (p. 234).

My willingness to persevere speaks to my efficacy with social media.  Once I find a tool that I find valuable, I am willing to commit time and effort as I know the outcome with be worth it. Through my perseverance I have developed skills which lend to my efficiency; I can now filter, screen, upload, embed, summarize (to 144 characters!) and share with relative ease. I do still have areas to grow in. I would like to actively take part in some Twitter chats (I’m usually a silent observer)  and should utilize hashtags more often to find feeds on specific topics. It continues to be a learning journey.

What Others Need to Know

Here is one of the significant take-aways I have gleaned which could be helpful for anyone considering using social media as an online professional tool:

Online vs Combined Models: I found that there are two main ways to use online pro-d: fully online or a hybrid model (Byington, p. 287) of online and face-to-face collaboration.  The fully online model is useful for reaching out to educators across the globe, benefiting from a wealth of information and accessing resources. However, it can be an isolated experience and I find that without someone physically alongside you, there is no guarantee that the information gathered will translate into classroom practice or educational reform.  A solution  would be to set expectations or goals with a professional learning community and assign online meeting times where you could debrief and discuss progress made.  Alternatively, educators can use a combined model which can “sustain communities of practice between face-to-face events” (p. 287). I have appreciated my own experience with this model within my literacy/numeracy mentorship role. Mentors from across the district come together approximately four times a year. In between, we use Twitter to stay connected with a common hashtag – #sd61slm. A benefit of this model is that it supports localized goals and inquiries and provides a flexible model for participation. Here’s a teacher in our district who agrees:

Where do I go from Here?

For my own practice I have established three goals:

  1. Create an online professional learning community within my school
  2. Take part in the weekly BCEdChat on Sunday evenings
  3. Use a social bookmarking tool with my students to help them search and collect information to support their inquiries, research or personal interests

Want to get started?

Here is a handy resource with some quick and easy advice on how to begin collaborating with social media:

Social Media Savvy? Four Tips to Help You Get Started | Edutopia.

p.s. thanks to some Twitter friends for their insights!

The above is a shortened and modified version of a recent M Ed inquiry assignment

Beach, R. (2012). Can online learning communities foster professional development? Language Arts, 89(4), 256-262.

Bostock, S. (2012). Thirdspace: A perspective on professional development. Language Arts, 89(4), 222-231.

Byington, T. (2011). Communities of practice: Using blogs to increase collaboration. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46, 280-291.

Colwell, J., Hutchison, A., & Reinking, D. (2012). Using blogs to promote literacy response during professional development. Language Arts, 89(4), 232-243.

Darfour, R. (2008) Revisiting professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

McConnell, T., Parker, J., Eberhardt, J., Koehler, J., & Lundeberg, M. (2013). Virtual professional learning communities: Teachers’ perceptions of virtual versus face-to-face professional development. Journal of Science Education and Technology. 22, 267-277.

Richardson, W. (2013). Students first, not stuff. Educational Leadership. March 2013, 10-14.

Richardson, W. & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of connections to transform education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Trinkle, C. (2009). Twitter as a professional learning community. School Library Monthly, 26(4), 22-23.

Vacca, R., Vacca, J., & Mraz, M. (2014). Learning with new literacies.

The Writer, The Writing and The Technology

I have to admit, writing has always been one of my least favourite subjects areas to teach. I was usually daunted by the range of abilities and meeting the vast needs of my students, the big piles of marking and the students’ general apathy towards writing.

 

library.sdsu.edu
I have tried to make the most of it. I created writing assignments that seemed interesting, taught and supported their expository writing skills, and connected their reading to their writing.  I realise now that I was really teaching the writing, not the writer. No wonder we were all bored.
Both Atwell (1989) and Hicks (2009) have opened up my view of writing instruction, helped me understand my students’ role as writers and have ignited a passion to teach writing. If I were to summarize what I have learned I could easily use Hicks’ point that we need to teach the writer, then the writing, then the technology (p.8).
Until now, I have never put some much consideration into who my students are as writers by integrating their out of school writing interests (both topic and genre) into the classroom. This has been a major shift. Inspired by Atwell’s stress of choice I have moved beyond my comfort zone of having all students working on the same style of writing on the same topic. While I haven’t moved to her model of a fully individualized writing workshop, my students are now composing for an audience of their choice, taking their own directions and answering their own questions within a theme and selecting the media and genre which best conveys their message. The inherent differentiation in this approach has not only increased my students’ interests in writing, but is also empowering some of my most reluctant writers. For them choice equals safety.
With students working on different styles at a given time, teaching the writing has presented some new challenges. I find that I am often battling the pressure that they must all learn a certain form or struggling to meet so many particular needs in different genres at one time. Using Atwell’s mini lesson approach has alleviated some of this stress. Instead of addressing forms of writing I am now providing modeling on aspects of writing which they can all use at any given time or within any genre. For example, in one mini lesson we looked at using relevant examples to appeal to an audience. After the lesson I asked the students to review their writing and include a relevant example to help their reader visualize or connect. They all got right down to work and they all had a manageable tool to revise their writing. 
Upon reviewing In the Middle I found another idea that I will introduce next term. Atwell uses a hanging file system which contains samples of writing organized by genre (p.99). I have often used mentor texts when teaching a certain style of writing and believe in their value. However, having this system in place will alleviate some of my concerns of meeting so many needs at once as my students (and I if in a conference) can pull samples as they need. I am also considering how we can use social book marking tools or RSS feeds as discussed in chapter 2 of The Digital Writing Workshop to gather digital examples of mentor texts.
The most exciting changes for me this year have been the integration of more technology and my expanded view of digital literacy. Forever a sceptic, I typically need significant proof to enact change in my class. In our field we are constantly bombarded with new ideas, strategies and methods. This can be overwhelming and often comes with the pressure to jump on the bandwagon. When I am considering a change in practice or perspective I ask myself: is this valid? is this feasible? is this meaningful for my students? Hicks’ case for the importance of digital literacy led me to answer yes to all of these questions. It is no longer a question of should we include technology; essentially all writing our students are doing is influenced or informed by digital tools (p. 10). And, as Hicks states, “our pedagogy needs to acknowledge this shift and adopt a perspective that honours and integrates digital writing into our classrooms” (p. 11).  
While I have learned more about the writer, the writing and the technology through Hicks and Atwell, they have also helped me understand how to marry the old with the new. I used to question if we were being asked to throw out what we knew of writing instruction to make way for 21st Century literacy. Hicks assured me that this isn’t the case, “New literacies, Multiliteracies. Digital literacies.  Digital writing. It all continues to evolve rapidly, and as writing teachers we need to hold on to some solid ground, some practices that we know work when it comes to teaching writing” (p. 10). 
This is an important message I think all teachers need to understand as it lightens some of the uncertainty I often hear surrounding writing in the 21st century.
Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: Reading, writing and learning with adolescents (2nd ed.). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton Cook Publishers.
Hicks, T. (2009). The digital writing workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.

Linking our Learning – Reflections of a Teacher Composer

When first absorbing the blogging assignment where we were to become composers I thought to myself – isn’t that what we are doing all the time – writing? Little did I know that I would be embarking on a journey of humility, exploration, deep reflection and empowerment.

http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/

While tentative at first, our early readings helped me understand the method behind our instructor’s madness. Leigh & Cramer’s (2011) plea to teachers struck me, “Young writers look to us for opportunities to write their way into this world. Write with them,” (p. 88). Around the same time I was reading the opening chapters of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle (1989) where she also expresses the importance of writing with our students. While I was beginning to understand its value, particularly in transforming our writing instruction, I was still left with a fear of putting myself out on the line as a writer in a public forum for my colleagues. I felt like the teachers in Teresa Grainger’s (2005) study with, “[a] fear of failure and possible exposure” (p.78). Furthermore, I could relate as, “they still found it difficult to share their personal writing,” (p. 78) despite having a collegial and supportive relationship with their peers. I soon realized the irony of my fear. I ask my students to do this daily – to write, to share, to post to a bulletin board. Of course some (or many) of them share the feeling of fear and exposure that I was grappling with. This challenge also made me consider the learning environment of my classroom. While typically positive and supportive, I realized that I needed to put additional thought into structuring lessons, assessment and classroom communication to create an especially safe space to share our writing.

My initial piece of writing was a free verse poem about the best part of me. This was a writing assignment my students were about to begin and I knew it would come with some challenges and vulnerabilities as it isn’t easy for an adolescent to write about their own physical features in a positive light. I took the advice of Atwell, Leigh and Cramer and exposed myself as a writer to my students. From blank paper to finished product they watched as I planned, crafted, revised, made word choices and used resources to create my poem. Not only did I feel vulnerable writing about myself I was quite nervous (although well hidden) to write in front of a crowd. However, when it came time to conference I found, as Atwell did, that my students valued my advice and feedback as they viewed me as a writer and I felt better equipped offering support having been in their shoes. As Atwell states, “I can only become their mentor…because I know writing from the inside, and I’ve shown them I do” (p. 26).

My reliance on the writing process became very apparent to me throughout my blogging experience. Partly due to the public venue, partly due to personal circumstance and partly due to my own writing style I found that time was essential. Thompson(2013) shares that, “the key to progress in writing lies in the importance of conferencing, allowing time to write and the importance of the writer finding a voice” (p.250). For my voice, which was imprinted in my writing,(p. 250) to emerge I need time to ruminate, read, explore, start over or walk away. I found this with most of my entries, but especially with my two voice poem and my letter to my granny. When our students have, “sufficient time to consider and reconsider what they’ve written, they’re more likely to achieve the clarity, logic, voice, conventionality, and grace of good writing” (Atwell, p. 91). Like them, time was very important to me, but I often felt under the gun as we usually are as students with deadlines. At times I felt my writing suffered, and sympathized with my students who feel the pressure to hand in a piece of work before they think it’s finished.

Time played a different role in my digital writing experience however. I appreciated that time allowed for revisiting, revising and reviewing my online compositions. I liked that I could go back to my blog, Learnist board, or Twitter feed and add information, as I did when I finally figured out how to use html text and embed my Learnist board on a blog post. This made me realize the impact of continually being able to construct, re-construct and represent information will have on our students. They will now be able to demonstrate their understanding over a longer period, edit and revise to include or remove ideas and blend new media as they continue to explore. While faced with some similar struggles as the pre-service teachers in Set in Stone or Set in Motion? (Hundley & Holbrook, 2013) such as finding images to convey a message, I generally found creating multimodal blog posts and web tools engaging and fun. As Jason Ohler (2009)shares, “Being literate also means being able to integrate emerging new media forms into a single narrative or ‘media collage’ such as a Web page, blog or digital story” (p. 9). Through my adventures embedding, blogging, tweeting, and online collaborating through social bookmarking I have felt like an active creator of online information and media. This experience has allowed me to develop a “digital insider perspective” (Roach & Beck, 2012 p. 244) which I can bring to my own class to support my students. And, like the teachers in Susi Bostock’s (2012)research, I found that I , “came to appreciate that these digital literacies were, in fact, a new and important language, a language that deserves recognition in the classroom curriculum as a significant form of communication” (p. 229).

Roach & Beck ask, “have we connected our outside school knowledge to our inside school pedagogy?” (p. 244). After this blogging experience I feel comfortable answering yes.

*Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: Reading, writing and learning with adolescents (2nd ed.). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton Cook Publishers.

Bostock, S. (2012). Thirdspace: A perspective on professional development. Language Arts, 89(4). 222-231.

Grainger, T. (2005). Teachers as writers: Learning together. English in Education 39(1)

*Hundley, M., Holbrook, M. (2013). Set in stone or set in motion? Multimodal and digital writing with preservice English teachers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(6) 500-509.

*Leigh, R., & Cramer, R. (2011). Two voice poem: A conversation with writers on writing. English Journal,100(5) 82-89.

Ohler, J. (2009). Orchestrating the media collage. Educational Leadership. 66(6) 8-13.

Roach, A. & Beck, J., (2012). Before Coffee, Facebook: New literacy learning for 21st century teachers. Language Arts, 89(4) 244-255.

*Thompson, I. (2013). The mediation of Learning in the zone of proximal development through co-constructed writing activity. Research in the Teaching of English, 47(3) 247 – 276.

Systems

It’s funny how simple questions can sometimes lead to very complex answers.

When asked just over three weeks ago, what is curriculum? it seemed at first (to me) a simple question with a simple answer. Was I ever wrong.

I have been challenged on so many levels to come up with an answer to this question. And, I have struggled to piece together all the new ideas I was learning about with the beliefs and understanding I had in the beginning. When trying to make sense of it all, I realised that I was really thinking about two separate spheres. Two spheres that of course come together at some point…neither exist without the other.

There’s the system and there’s me.

The Paradox of Systemic Change

We keep hearing, and I think we realise, that we’re on the edge of change. We hear the language, 21st century learners, digital literacy, personalized learning…, but there isn’t a lot of clarity about what it all looks like, what does it mean, how will it work?  We can turn to our emerging provincial documents for some direction. Or can we?

The BC Ed Plan describes the challenges we face in a quickly changing world and offers a new plan to meet these demands. When reading through the document you find dialogue which reflects the language and theories that currently support the new vision of our 21st century learners. Ironically, much of the language and proposals for change are not new at all. We’ve actually seen it all before.

The underlying premise of this proposed change is to create a society which is competitive within the international market; reminiscent of the pressures faced in the early 50’s. The answer in both cases was to change the educational system. In the words shared in the BC Ed Plan,  “…to keep our young people achieving and thriving in a dynamic, rapidly evolving world” (BC Ed Plan, p.3).

As you read on, the document describes the approaches we must take to support our students.  You read about individualised plans, students being at the centre of their learning, and need for flexibility. John Dewey would be proud. In fact, if you read any current trade book on project based learning and inquiry his name is quick to come up.

While the foundation of the proposed changes are sound and relevant I can’t help but feel the plan works on assumption. Assumption that it can actually happen within the systems that we are currently so entrenched in.

We need to train new teachers, but we are training teachers within a system that is just as outdated as the one they propose to change.

It assumes that thousands of teacher will be willing or accepting of a major paradigm shift:  evoking the challenges of intensification as described by Michael Apple (172).

Furthermore, there is also the assumption that this shift in curriculum will take place without any concrete commitment to resourcing. Who will be responsible for outfitting schools with the necessary technology, for the significant training teachers will need, or for overhauling the provincial reporting systems? On a local level, I have seen numerous examples where proposed changes have not been sustained due to the lack of resourcing – little or no time, money or materials put in place. The government seems to be taking on the ideals of Bobbit – maximize output at minimal cost (Curriculum Studies Reader, p.5).

I don’t disagree that there is a need for change. But, I am cynical.  History repeats itself – as we have all learned in this class.

Where do I fit?

I feel like I have been a curriculum theory bandwagon jumper over the past few weeks. I

connected with the traditionalist. I believed in Eisner. I found myself in the thoughts and ideas of the reconceptualists.

And, that is okay because when I look back at my metaphor I can see them all in there.

I don’t think my metaphor has changed very much even though my thinking and understanding has. One of the biggest changes on the map is me. I think I need to redefine myself…less concrete, more asphalt. I’m far more flexible in my thinking. When asked in class what my enduring understanding is, I stated that I need to release myself. I have released myself from my original thinking that curriculum is document. I have released myself to understand that what I do in my class is not necessarily a means to teach to a curriculum, but it is my curriculum. And, it’s a curriculum that I’m very proud of. While it may be stuck in an obsolete system, it already embraces the ideals of 21st century learners… not because it’s the 21st century, but because I continually ask myself why. And, my why is my students.

Naming the World…

Upon completing my reading of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed my heart was heavy. His words crept into my soul. I wept.

 I had to sit and find the root of those tears.

It brought me right to my experience as a professional in our province. Freire wrote, “[Dialogue] is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one man by another” (p.158). As teachers, we are the oppressed. We are the result of crafty dialogues which dominate. I have never felt that the dialogue that was so benevolently offered was genuine; that it didn’t have a predetermined outcome, that it wasn’t a set word which had opportunity for renaming (p.157).

The heaviness of the oppression sat deep within me as I read parts of the BC Ed Plan.  You need only to look at the introductory section on effective teaching. One might think this initial conversation would share with readers how valuable and integral teachers are and recognize their important role in delivering and shaping the curriculum being proposed. I certainly thought that it would share an action plan of supports that would be put in place to assure effective practice, but I didn’t expect this version,  “…this Plan will address widely-shared concerns about how our province’s teaching profession has been regulated. It will make sure teacher regulation protects both students and the public interest.” (BC Ed Plan, 4) Put aside the insinuation that we are currently not doing an effective job, what about the protection for teachers?

And, why is there a discussion about discipline in a formative document about curriculum? Crafty dialogue.

With further introspection I realised that Freire was triggering something else I have been wrestling with throughout my career. He named for me a dialogue that I have been having about how we shape our students’ acceptance and experience in our schools. How do we create a true community where every student is valued?

It brings me back to my on-going quest to ask and answer, WHY? If our why is to support and shape students who are confident, prepared, critical thinkers then why are schools naming their worlds on behalf of them? As Freire states, “…it must not be a situation where some men name on behalf of others. (158)

I’m especially drawn to our oppressed; our students who are already marginalized.

How are we are creating a school community which invites them in? And this invite does not rest on charity, because charity is only perpetuating the oppression. It’s us telling them that WE know how to solve the problem for them; that WE can determine how they can be included.  

What we do need to do, as Freire suggests, is shape our school’s curriculum, with humility, love, hope and faith and with an honest dialogue, to assure that our students can shape their transformation.

I will not be silent.

Shhh…don’t tell anyone, but I hate this word

It sends shivers down my spine.

It’s something I’m expected to do.

Not only that, it’s taken for granted that it’s something I believe in.

I know, I know Dewey. Yes, I hear ya Eisner.

The student is at the centre of the curriculum.

And mine are. I consider their needs. I build a classroom library that is rich with books they love. I differentiate. I conference. I embrace their interests and include them in our learning.

What I don’t do it start a lesson, or a unit, asking myself, “How am I going to engage my students?”

That is looking at HOW. It’s not looking at WHY.

And this is why the term engagement sends me off in frenzy.

Of course I want to engage my students. I want them to be invested. I want them to be involved, physically and mentally. Through careful planning and consideration of who my students are, engagement is a result, not a hook.

But, I have started to see the word engagement as something we do to trick them into learning. It a toy, it’s a gadget, it’s an iPad, it’s the latest and greatest website or Web 2.0 tool. I’m asked, “How are you engaging your students?”

Which leads me to the root of my problem with the word engagement…technology and engagement.
It came to me mid-way through the school year. I was part of an action research group that was looking at IPad use in Math. We had a question (shhh…another secret, I helped to develop the question) that went something like, How will using IPads in Math help to engage our students and increase their basic math skills?
I started fielding questions about how engaged my students must be because we had IPads in our class. And then one day it dawned on me. It wasn’t about the IPads. It was about the needs of the students. I really wanted to help them improve their basic math understanding. The IPad was just another method to get them to that goal. The IPad was just the modern day flash card!
Then, inspired by our class discussions and shaping my understanding of 21st Century Literacy, I stumbled upon this…
courtesy of teachthought.com
YES! Thank you! I couldn’t agree more.

Is engagement important for 21 century literacies? You bet.

Will technology bet part of that? Absolutely.

Will it be a means of demonstrating learning in a developmentally, socially relevant way? I hope so.

Will it give students a chance to “see” themselves in their learning? For sure.

Will it be used to hook them into learning? I hope not.

Teaching as a Metaphor

Like a highway, I am concrete. I like structure. I need to see my destination. I’m comforted by parameters. Yet, like a meandering country lane, I like to take my time. I’m okay with changing my direction even though it might take me a little longer to reach my target.
Being asked to define my understanding of curriculum metaphorically presented some intellectual
conflict. The concrete thinker in me immediately went to the bible of teachers in BC – the IRP’s. But, my opposing side questioned its dogmatic specifications and seriously pondered the array of alternatives. Building on this conflict, reading Egan’s early writings on curriculum did little to help me answer my questions on who defines curriculum and instead posed a new debate – the roles of content and methodology in curriculum. But, more on this conundrum later…

Just as I can personally relate to the paths that take us on a journey, I see curriculum as a road map; a laid out plan that is both defined yet invites interpretation.
Looking at a map, we see the interconnect dots showing us the cities and towns which define the constructed geography. In educational terms these are our outcomes. Just as groups before us established these settlements, curriculum developers through time have determined the outcomes and standards which we must teach to. However, I am not so pragmatic as to see these markers, or goals, as only created by a higher power of curricular knowledge. Through a more practical and personal lense, I know that our destinations are often defined by the travelers – our students.


The numerous roads and highways that connect the cities and towns represent the paths that we take to reaching the goals. At times a traveler has no choice over how they will get to their destination – it’s all up to the driver. This is often the case for our students. Some teachers may travel a linear or well-worn path; one which has got them safely to that same location time and time again. Others may find that they are working on intuition. They have a keen sense of direction and are able to navigate through the obstacles or opportunities which are presented along their journey. In our classrooms and schools, these obstacles and opportunities are constantly arising. Availability of resources, student interests, ranges in students’ social, emotional and academic needs and readiness, district demands, professional development, community involvement and parental requests constantly affect the routes we take.

This naturally leads to how we navigate these roads. Selecting a mode of travel is a choice perhaps made of necessity or one made out of curiosity or a sense of adventure. The many options presented for our mode of transportation represent the methodology of our instruction. Like choosing a path to get to a destination, the choice you make in how you are going to get there is deeply affected by the same obstacles and opportunities. The pressures of time and content often leave teachers feeling like they must find the most efficient and expedient methods of instruction. However, teachers may choose to pilot their instruction based on the demands and requests of their travelers.
As I mentioned, maps are interpretive; where you come from always influences how you decipher the map.
This leaves me at my personal cross-road. I take comfort in Franklin Bobbit’s enduring influence on the establishment of defined learning goals within our curriculum. Yet, as a reflective and caring teacher I embrace the curiosity and needs of my students and use that to shape the course of our class. While I believe this is essential for establishing and reaching goals and outcomes, I still find a need to balance the individual and societal demands when shaping and creating curriculum.
As for the what versus how debate presented by Kieran Egan in his article What is Curriculum I am left with a bigger question which I must continue to explore – how much should methodology really be placed within curriculum? As I illustrated in my metaphor, the methodology of instruction is so connected to the dynamic and fluid contexts which we teach in. I find it hard to prescribe instructional methods when the choices we have to make can change daily.

I must admit, I am intrigued by all these questions and the path I’m on in connecting the past and looking towards the future. It has built upon a journey that began for myself and my colleagues this year as we put aside the who and the what and how and asked ourselves – why? But, that story is for another day.