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May 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 8
Supporting Beginning Teachers
To be prepared for today's classrooms, teachers must make social networks part of both their students' learning and their own professional growth.
For the last decade, I've taught English, social studies, foreign languages, and fine arts at a Catholic high school in northern Maryland. As a professional development goal in 2008, I decided to try teaching paperless. At that time, we were a 1:1 computing school in which all the students had tablet PCs. I found that by having students turn in work through e-mail and by sending them assignments through shared folders and blogs, I was able to save a lot of paper.
It soon became apparent, however, that saving paper wasn't the really revolutionary thing going on in my classroom. Although I had started with the goal of tidying up my clutter, my students quickly latched on to the fact that we were now connected in a way we had never been before. In short order, they brought
Pixton and various other Googlified sites and apps into the classroom. Far from becoming a distraction, all of that digital connection became a catalyst for authentic and relevant 21st century learning.
I was overwhelmed by what my professional development goals had wrought: I was having trouble keeping on top of the opportunities that all these connections offered. And so I turned to the social web. I started a blog about my experience teaching in a paperless classroom, and the blog became a community that grew into the thousands. On Twitter, I found a core of dedicated educators and technology experts who over the years have become part of my personal learning network—my PLN.
I began thinking about how to leverage all that knowledge and energy into something that would help my students. We crowdsourced our class syllabus and invited the people in the network—history teachers, administrators, parents, college professors, journalists—to help us create a new kind of learning experience based on connections. The students threw away their notebooks and started blogs. These blogs became, in essence, open notebooks in which students were willing to learn in public.
Students in one class put together a blog that was read by more than 8,000 people around the world. (How many people read your essays back in high school?) Commenters began showing a serious interest in what the kids were writing. A college professor from Boston wrote in to tell a 15-year-old boy that a college class was using his paper on ancient Rome as an example of good academic writing. A Canadian ski-jumping fan, concerned about gender bias in sports, entered into a discussion with a small group of students who had published research on the history of women in the Olympics. Eventually, some commenters began challenging the student bloggers—not in a negative way, but like the best commenters challenge the authors of blogs that engage them. I was proud to watch a particularly savvy teen hold her own in a debate about source material with an academic from New England.
In 2009, the Johns Hopkins University School of Education asked me to apply what I'd learned about networked learning to the preparation of teachers for Baltimore City Public Schools. The first semester was tough. I was faced with teachers saying, "The school I'm going to doesn't have enough books. Why do I need to learn how to teach using laptops?"
I realized that we needed to motivate new teachers to see themselves as leaders who would bring the power of technology to schools because if we only prepare teachers for the current infrastructure, we are going to underprepare an entire generation of educators for the coming reality of ubiquitous connectedness. So in the last three years at Hopkins, we've worked to define what it means to be a fully prepared teacher in the digital age.
Our master's degree program has produced graduates who view digital acumen and classroom connectedness as nonnegotiable professional skills for 21st century teachers. They hold themselves responsible for engaging in real time with other classrooms; being fluent in the use of personal learning networks; advocating for digital access for all students; and using digital tools and connections to teach their content in ways that are engaging, motivating, authentic, and relevant to their students' lives. Here are a few of the digital expectations that fully prepared 21st century teachers have for their own professional learning.
The first mark of 21st century teacher preparedness is the educator's personal learning network (PLN), consisting of a core of digitally connected teachers, administrators, education theorists, new-media thinkers, technology experts, and content providers. Some PLNs may be broad; others may focus on one topic. But whatever the size, you only get something out of a network in proportion to what you put in. If you want results, you have to build social capital by being an active member of the online community.
Because developing a PLN is complicated, new teachers should begin building a PLN while they are still in education school, under the tutelage of a seasoned PLN builder. All education schools should have faculty who are able to help preservice teachers build their PLNs. More experienced teachers who have not enjoyed this preservice support should begin by joining Twitter and following the
#edchat hashtag; from there, they will be able to connect to other teachers with similar experiences and a range of technical skills.
A PLN can be a powerful tool not only for ongoing professional development, but also for teaching and learning in the classroom. For example, I was leading a 9th grade Human Geography class in examining the concept of regional language. Together, we were viewing a color-coded map of the United States, with each color representing a different variation of the popular terms for soft drinks—soda, coke, pop, and so on. We noted interesting patterns, such as how many northeastern expressions were common in distinct areas of southern Florida and how the term differed in some areas depending on which side of the river one lived on.
At one point during our discussion, a student asked, "How do we know the map is right?" It was a great question, and in talking about how we might test the data, we decided to put a query out on my Twitter feed. Our tweet read: "Question from Freshman Class: Hey World, what is the generic name you use for a soft drink? Please give yr name & location. THX! #JCHUMANGEO"
We had gone on with the lesson and were discussing another topic when someone piped up, "Check the Twitter feed!" We did and found that our feed was already filled with dozens of responses from people across the United States as well as from other countries. Respondents included a teacher in Michigan who called it
soda pop, a teacher in Texas who called it coke, a teacher in Massachusetts who called it
tonic, and a teacher in California who explained that she feels like an outsider there because she still uses the term she learned growing up in the South.
These shared stories helped students make connections to the human geography concept we were studying. We compared the responses in the tweets with the map, and they confirmed everything in the data. The students learned that language is shaped by region—but more important, they understood how networks can validate data—and how data can validate the authority of a network.
Powerful, real-time lessons like this one depend on connections. If teachers develop PLNs early in their careers, they will have those connections at hand when they need them.
The new definition of teacher preparedness also includes understanding how new media works and how to use personal learning networks for ongoing professional learning.
In Cognitive Surplus,1
Clay Shirky writes that you become more effective by creating a culture around a given idea and then letting the community that develops around that culture thrive and help spread your idea. A good example of how this works in education is the
#edchat Twitter hashtag mentioned earlier (described on the
New York Times Learning Network page). This hashtag was created to bring educators together to have fast-paced and concise discussions online. Twice a week, a small core of volunteers manage a live chat in which hundreds of teachers share ideas, occasionally venting but most often thriving on the shared sense of identity and community.
The conversation continues on Twitter 24/7 as teachers use this hashtag to share information and ideas about education and professional development. In my own experience, the shared community knowledge and online mentorships found in #edchat conversations and debates have changed my own practice as an educator, helping me hone my instincts about homework, professional development, relationships with parents, and more.
Many teachers say that their participation in #edchat is far more valuable than the professional development that schools have traditionally offered. One of the reasons #edchat is regarded so highly, I believe, is that it turns professional development into a personalized experience that thrives on strong community connections. Such personalization doesn't happen when an expert speaks in front of a school faculty for two hours and the closest thing to community engagement is the opportunity to write responses on sticky notes.
Fully prepared 21st century teachers are engaged teachers. They expect to have access to ongoing, personalized, community-based, social-media-driven professional development. As they enter the profession, they should be given time to engage in this kind of learning—and they should have good role models in their education schools and good mentors in their workplaces who help them learn how to engage effectively with the professional community.
Another feature of the new definition of teacher preparedness is the expectation of autonomy. Teachers need time and space to learn how technology works best for them and for their students. In my classroom, I would never have been able to experiment, explore, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes without the autonomy entrusted to me by my principal.
Teachers also need opportunities to take the lead in conversations about curriculum. You can have the best teachers—and all the leading technology and open Internet access you could want—but if your curriculum is out of sync with the times, it will all be for naught. I cringe when I see that a school offers scheduled "tech time" to teach kids basic computing skills. We have to move beyond thinking of technology as auxiliary to content and instead integrate content with technology—especially social technologies.
Because they are the people who work every day with the students, the content, and the technology, classroom teachers need to claim a seat at the table when it comes to developing and evaluating the curriculum. Twenty-first century teachers will expect to be involved in the work of integrating technology and curriculum in relevant ways. Schools need to give them the autonomy to experiment with the new media in a way that promotes good pedagogy.
I often hear school principals wonder why their faculties do not seem to buy in to all the talk of the new digital landscape. Part of it has to do with understandable skepticism; how many times have teachers been told that "this is the new thing," only to have the new thing replaced in short order by another new thing? If I had been teaching in the 1990s, I would probably have been a critic of what was then called educational technology, which was really just a digital re-creation of traditional instruction.
But with the growth of the Internet—and more specifically the mainstreaming of social networks in the last few years—technology has become something different. We have moved from the age of static desktop computers to the dynamic age of connected mobile learning. Even teachers who seemed resistant a few short years ago are now recognizing that technology has changed our lives beyond the classroom, from news to shopping to stocks. Soon we won't be having debates about whether we can afford 1:1 computing; we'll be having debates about where to recycle the old copier and the multivolume sets of library encyclopedias.
We are living in an era of dramatic change, and teachers' expectations—particularly those of new teachers whose education and experience have immersed them in social technology and participatory media—have also changed. Teachers now entering the classroom are likely to view technology and connected learning as an essential part of both their students' education experiences and their own professional growth. The culture of schooling needs to change to support this new definition of the well-prepared teacher.
Shirkey, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: How technology makes consumers into collaborators. New York: Penguin Press.
Shirkey, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: How technology makes consumers into collaborators. New York: Penguin Press.
Shelly Blake-Plock is co-executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit located in Baltimore, Maryland, working with teachers and students to make new links between education and innovation. He was a secondary school classroom teacher for more than 10 years and is currently a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Copyright © 2012 by ASCD
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