As classroom teachers, educational leaders, and post secondary educators, we are all in this together. As the saying goes, “It takes a village.” The truth is though, that many times, we tend to get stuck in our own corner of the world. This past week, I had a chance to travel 3,625 miles from my home on the Big Island of Hawaii to Austin Texas, and attend the annual AMLE (Association for Middle Level Education) conference, for the first time. The passion, enthusiasm, camaraderie, laughter, tears and love for teaching and learning that filled those convention center rooms was like no other experience I have ever had.
Middle school teachers from around the globe got together and for three solid days, it was about learning and growing as educators, with what is best for the kids we will come home to at the forefront of our hearts and minds. That collective empowerment, where a person who you happened to sit next to in a room full of strangers becomes your Twitter and Facebook friend before the hour was up, recommendations on must read books, website and blogs were suggested, and chats about dos and don’ts, “Ya’ll trust me on this one,” illustrated how beautiful it can be when we all share our strengths and seek guidance with our struggles, with no judgement involved. As co-pilots in this journey together, seeking out ways to empower ourselves and each other, sometimes flying into the great unknown, but being willing to take the risk anyway, in an effort to inspire our students to do the same.
In this week’s #IMMOOC, with guest Kara Welty, the idea surrounding unleashing our talents as educators and how important it is for creating meaningful learning opportunities for teachers, could not have come in better timing. Making connections with other educators is invaluable in our ability to think beyond our own experiences. This week was indeed all about being a connected learner. As mentioned by Dr. Martin, the Joyce and Showers research shows that teachers will only retain 15-20% of what they learned by attending a workshop or a conference and actually implement it, but to move beyond the “stand and deliver experience” where teachers are collaborating in a safe environment, are coached and getting feedback, the number jumps to about 90% of those teachers implementing what they learned in their classrooms (Martin, 2016). Our school team consisted of 16 teachers who traveled to Texas as a group. Of that group, my husband, an educator and current temporary vice principal at our school and my special education co-teacher, were in attendance. We were all able to bond, laugh, discuss and share, over Texas BBQ (make that vegetarian for me!) and more than our fair share of Voodoo Doughnuts. Our plan is to take what we learned back to the full faculty at our school, and not only share from our experiences, but continue to model, collaborate and reinforce all of the wonderful things so that, as George Couros states in the Innovator’s Mindset, we are “owning” our learning experiences and are able to “…apply it in innovative ways,” (2015). In the arena of strengths based leadership, the ability to empower people with ideas that they can then decide which strategies and ideas to use to further strengthen their own classroom, will ensure that “everyone [will] feel like they are an important piece of the puzzle.”(Welty, 2016). I was able to make connections with presenters, authors, and even got to meet some of my UH Manoa professors in person for the first time. It was an incredible experience all around!
These experiences, whether face to face or through the use of technology, allow us the opportunity to make connections with others who serve to uplift us, encourage us to expand our thinking and question what we know to be true, are vital. Growing as a connected learner allows us to take flight in both our thinking and actions as we reach toward something new and better.
Another key element of the 8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classrooms that exists in my professional learning is the element of reflection. Sometimes it is so full throttle through the day, that we fail to stop, think and reflect, which is perhaps the most important element of the learning process since “people need time to process ideas and thoughts,”(Couros, 2015). In our AMLE conference sessions, many presenters encouraged reflection in a variety of ways. This included reciprocal teaching, a snowball toss activity, silent reflection time, or just informally turning to a partner and sharing what resonated with you and what challenges you may have with regard to the concept. Taking that moment to really pause and reflect can be so empowering, but many times, it’s the one thing we fail to do. In fact, even in my own classroom, I know how imperative it is to take the time to allow students to reflect as well, but often “closure” or reflection time gets the short end of the planning stick when time runs out and the bell rings. I know this element is one that I need to try to implement better for my own students, as without the reflective component, learning cannot come full circle. “I reflect, therefore I learn” should indeed be that time we gift ourselves with, for without it, so much growth and learning is lost (Couros, 2015).
In addition to all of the amazing ideas presented in section 3 of the Innovator’s Mindset, another huge aha for me was the “Less is More” philosophy. I think we tend to, as busy teachers, parents, and people, pile our plates to the fullest, that much is lost as a result. In order to innovate and provide students deep learning experiences, we cannot continue to teach in a buffet line style where we have so many options, we load up our students’ plates so full that what we are trying to teach becomes lost. Inadvertently, by only “scratch[ing] the surface of learning,” we become the jack of all trades masters of none, that George Couros refers to, and as a result, our students suffer burn out and disinterest. Consequently, by over planning and over structuring, we take away from the learner. The more the teacher is doing, the less the students are, when we want the cognitive load on our learners (Martin, 2016). In one of my AMLE sessions, entitled “50 Ways to Leave Your Lecture” presented by Grace Dearborn, she speaks of a study by Dr. Marian Diamond done on rats and that the more we use our brains, the heavier they get. Thus, the more the teacher is talking- up to 80% in most elementary schools and up to 90-95% in high school settings!-the teacher is getting smarter, NOT the students (Dearborn, 2016). As teachers, we need to allow students more of the co-pilot position in our classroom. We cannot expect, through passivity, to make their brains heavier, no matter how many times we as adolescents slept with our science books under our pillows at night hoping through osmosis to do well on the test the next day. We need to put students in the drivers seat of success and become active partners in their learning. In this respect, I cannot help but reflect on my experience as a new teacher, when I’d stay up late into the night reading and editing papers with my trusty green (never the harsh red) pen, thinking, “Wait…who is getting the practice here?” I finally learned that peers helping peers was the way to go- by having students conferencing and editing put them in the learning position-an experience I was invariably stealing from them with my good, late night intentions. Now with technology and through the use of Google Classrooms, the ability becomes even more widespread, as students can read, comment and learn from one another, and not even be in the same room. Gone are those long nights where I sit and edit away. Less is more for all of us, when I hand the controls to my students and watch them fly toward their own collaborative success.
Yesterday we left Austin, two dozen Voodoo Doughnuts in my carry on, a bag of books to read and enjoy, pamphlets to share, websites and blogs to check out, Twitter accounts to follow and new forever friends that connect to all parts of the world, who although thousands of miles in distance, are, through the click of a mouse, just a screen away. My professional learning community has expanded by leaps and bounds in the course of days. In so many ways we are all so different, with unique experiences in our lives and with our students, and in other ways we are one in the same. But no matter what, we are all co-pilots in this journey of teaching, learning, growing and inspiring one another. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and I feel like for me at the AMLE this week that was so true. We are all big, shining stars helping guide one another to new, brighter and better things. I’ve always been proud to call myself an educator and a life long learner, but this week, my passion for both grew bigger, deep in the heart of Texas!