April 2008

So I found myself frustrated last week.

I spent the afternoon with a group of teachers who had explored Project Based Learning this year through a variety of formats. As we reflected on what worked, what didn’t, and what we’d like to see changed, one of the teachers made a comment along the lines of, “Our division is a top-down division.” He further commented that what’s fair isn’t always equal. I sensed that he was frustrated, and I know several other teachers and administrators around the division feel the same way. I can’t really disagree with him. As a division we have mandated a focus on math and writing this year as priorities for schools – based on data from AFL and our division writing assessments. PLC’s were to be formed around these 2 areas as much as possible, and professional learning is to connect to these division and school-wide focuses as well. So yes, in many respects, the division is mandating the work that people are doing.

Being cognizant that people are feeling this way, I try to provide people choices within some of the constraints they are working in. For example, later that day I was doing a short presentation to a staff about the writing trait of “Organization”. As part of my presentation, I was sharing links to various websites where they could access graphic organizers to use with their students. The request was made that instead of just providing them with links, couldn’t I just provide them a package with the graphic organizers they should be using? I was baffled slightly when I heard this…here I thought I was being helpful by providing them with different choices – when in reality some of them just want to be told what to do. 

I guess really these situations are emblematic of our classrooms, aren’t they? Some of our students want to forge ahead, figure things out on their own and  not be constrained by the expectations of teachers/administrators/curriculum. Others want to be told just what to do – give me the assignment and show me how to do it.

So my question is – how do we deal with this dichotomy on a school division level? How much autonomy should schools and teachers have? How much direction should be given??

Should our schools be left to set their own goals and determine their own professional learning entirely? Or should there be some input from a division level? Where is the balance…and how do we manage it??



I’ll be very honest…my initial reason for taking this course was entirely motivated by a desire to NOT have to drive during the winter months to Regina for classes. That I could sit in the comforts of my home and participate was a huge incentive, so much so, that I overlooked my insecurities about participating in a course focused on technology. As I recall in my first blog post, I acknowledged that I was not a techno newbie entirely, but certainly had plenty of room to grow. I think I’ve certainly done that.

In terms of course structure – I enjoyed having different guest speakers every week. It was great to be exposed to a variety of perspectives and issues regarding education and technology. While some guest speakers appealed to me more than others, I was always able to find something to connect to – even those presentations that got a little technical on me!! More important, however, was the dialogue among participants that emerged from many of our presentations. It was great to connect with so many people and hear how our struggles/challenges/successes were often similar, but in many cases also different. I enjoyed hearing what initiatives were happening in other divisions, and being privy to exemplars of wonderful ways to integrate technology into our classrooms. The power of the network has certainly been impressed upon me.

In addition to enjoying great conversation with fellow classmates and our instructors, the next best part of the course, for me, was reading other participant’s blogs. So often I would find posts that echoed my own thinking and ideas…which was affirming, but in other instances I would be challenged to think differently or more broadly about issues. My own blogging began with trepidation, and admittedly, I’ve yet to become a prolific blogger. I found I often preferred to read blogs and respond than write my own. What is so interesting to me, though, is that recently I’ve actually had the urge to blog…seriously. I would have never thought it possible, but as I’ve been heavily involved in some professional learning lately, I found that I wanted to write some posts – not necessarily because I had a huge desire to share with others, but more importantly to consolidate my own learning. I am dumbfounded by my density at times; I know how important “writing to learn” is…and yet, it has taken me until semester’s end to recognize the potential of my blog to serve as a tool for that powerful metacognitive strategy. It’s a struggle some days, I tell you.

One of the more challenging aspects of the course for myself was definitely the class collaborative wiki. I felt from the beginning that I didn’t have much to contribute as I lacked the expertise and/or knowledge to do so. As many of the tools we explored were entirely new to me, I wasn’t sure how to share useful information on them. Also, it became quickly apparent to me that much of the software/tools I am more familiar with were not open source -which while still useful, lose some of their appeal when subscription fees are attached.

As I’ve blogged on my digital project earlier, as well as reflected on it during our last session, I’ll not say much more except that I am hopeful I find a way to engage teachers in online, collaborative professional learning. While I’ve chosen a format that I think is useful for now, I’m cognizant that it will undoubtedly change and develop over time, ideally in the hands of teachers. The nature of my job is such that I know I will continue, indeed be required, to find ways to use technology both in my work with teachers, and also with students. That I could authentically connect this project to my current work was of huge benefit also.

Perhaps one of my greatest understandings I’m taking away from this course is the type of learner I am…or perhaps was. I always perceived myself to be a motivated, self-directed learner. Surprisingly, I found out that I struggled with the openess and flexibility available to me in the course.

When I initially discovered we wouldn’t have to write a formal paper, I was ecstatic…but about half way through the course…I was wishing that is exactly what I would have to do! It would be much easier – find a topic, research it, and write a paper – or two! Having the freedom to choose a digital project, thinking and rethinking what might be useful and manageable, was challenging. I was wishing that I was sitting in a classroom, being told exactly what to do and how to do it. How lazy!! But, I guess I’m from the generation of “sit and get” – so that is what is comfortable for me. The blogging, digital project, collaborative wiki – it allowed me such freedom that I wasn’t sure how to manage it at times.

I couldn’t help but think of our students, and how in our zest to provide them with authentic learning opportunities through avenues like project based learning or inquiry, they sometimes find it difficult to make that shift to being a self-directed learner. I recall having students say to me, “Can’t you just tell us what we need to do??” and my response to them was usually, “God forbid you’d have to think!”…and yet, here I was, wishing that someone would tell me what to do. I’ve come to realize my hypocrisy, and am more sensitive now to the reticence of our students to participate in learning activities that are outside their comfort zone.

The hallmark of true learning, of course, is that it moves beyond our current context and we apply it to a new situation. Well, I’m happy to say I’m now using google docs to manage my ball team. I’d have never thought of it before this class – and while I’m no expert – it is meeting our needs and helping us manage things in a more efficient manner than via email all the time. Who knew??

So I’ve been having a boo at all the great work many of you are doing with your students through your digital projects, and it really makes me miss a classroom environment! Fortunately, I recently got a Mac that I get to play with while I work with teachers and students from Lindale School through a pilot project that Dean Shareski organized. I haven’t had much time to dabble just yet, but I’m certainly excited to get engaged with some of the tools available on the Mac. That Garageband alone may steer me to my true dream of becoming a rock star yet!! LOL…

I realized that I haven’t reflected on my digital project at all to this point, and while we will be sharing them shortly, I became acutely aware of the difference between what many of you are doing and what I’m working towards.

For most of you – you’ve had the kids engaged and involved, working with the tools we’ve been learning about in this class – experimenting, becoming frustrated, having some success and experimenting some more no doubt.

My project is very static at this point, and has the potential to remain very static unless my intended audience truly buys into it’s purpose and engages with it. As I listened to D’arcy Norman and Brian Lamb’s discussion of repositories again recently, it occurred to me that I was possibly creating the very same thing – and I’m not sure I really want to!!

Without describing my project in it’s entirety, suffice it to say that my goal is to create the following:

  • first and foremost, a collaborative workspace where our Grade 1 ELA teachers can discuss best practice, assessment and instruction.
  • a place where they take control of their own learning – creating spaces of inquiry where they can work with their colleagues to work towards improved student learning
  • a space to house resources (documents and multi-media) – downloadable and modifiable for teachers
  • a space to house model lessons, exemplary student work and resources that will support student learning

Because some of the documents being housed in this space were created with Sask. Learning and we are not yet sure about copyright issues, I need to keep them private at this time, so I am using our division Forum site. While I am grateful that it will mean the documents remain private – I am concerned about the ease of collaboration. I think a wiki would have likely been a better avenue, but for now this is what I will work with. (The whole privacy issue is also something I’m struggling with, but I’ll save that for another post!)

My greatest fear, though, is that teachers won’t take the initiative to collaborate. And I’m not sure how to deal with that. I’m hoping that if I even get a handful of teachers who buy in, perhaps there will be a snowball effect. Of course I could subscribe to the old adage “You can lead a horse to water…” – but that feels like a bit of a cop out. Having said that, I know that unless I find something useful, I won’t subscribe to it – so this space needs to be user friendly and purposeful.

Time will tell….