Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Collaboration, NECC 2008 and The Future

There’s something thrilling that I have been a part of for the past 14 years. I get to witness 26 individual students transform themselves into a comfortable, constructive, self-sufficient scientific community of learners each year and in every class. (Describing how this goal is accomplished and the research behind it is quite detailed and outside the scope of this blog, but I will be sharing very soon!) The development of these communities, the bonds that form between my students year after year, is affirmation enough for me to keep the heart of my classroom something called Whole Class Inquiry (WCI).

My colleague, friend and co-author, Dr. Dennis Smithenry, and I have been working together for fourteen years. In that time, we have developed a rather unique science curriculum. The majority of our inquiry-based class time involves the entire class working together to accomplish a given task, hence the term Whole Class Inquiry (WCI).

I was amazed to be at a technology conference (NECC 2008) where three of the sessions I attended sincerely focused on the human angle of technology—the presenters really wanted to do what was best for kids. And I was even more excited to hear and/or see the connection between each session and our unique collaborative approach to science education. These presenters included David Jakes and Dean Shareski (Powerpoint Kills), Konrad Glogowski (Blogging Communities in the Classroom), and James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds).

The keynote speaker James Surowiecki shared his thoughts regarding the wisdom of crowds. Author and historian, he stated that a group of people is often much wiser than any one person in the group, in fact smarter than the smartest person in the room. He mentioned that the structure of the crowd is a crucial component. In order to benefit from the wisdom of a crowd, it must be composed of cognitively diverse (at least) individuals. They also must possess unique problem-solving strategies. And lastly, to enhance the intelligence of the group, you must assign the role of devil’s advocate to a member of the group during discussion. To keep the group honest, this role should be rotated between group members.

Surowiecki’s anecdotes and research statistics were perfectly tailored to the education community. I was thrilled to put further foundation to the claim Dennis and I have been making about the benefits of our Whole Class Inquiry approach. And I learned about certain technological tools that will allow me to improve on this strategy, particularly blogging. His stories also affirmed my belief that we should rethink tracking our children into regular, honors and introductory levels at Glenbrook North High School. I would love to pilot the idea of a mixed-level chemistry course.

Konrad Glogowski’s talk on blogging communities was the perfect follow-up to Surowiecki’s keynote. Unfortunatley, I was unable to attend his actual session as it was closed, but I did get to see it on a USTREAM. It is definitely worth a look!

Glogowski shared his research and practice on creating a digital “third space” by implementing blogs. He stated that a solid blogging community promotes a safe space of interaction. To make blogs a truly beneficial experience for the classroom community, they must be implemented in a manner that allows:

1. the opportunity for expressing voices and creativity.
2. the students the freedom to customize their online presence.
3. the creation of a place that is easily accessible.
4. the students a welcoming space where they have the freedom to interact/network in any way they feel comfortable.

I have long since been a proponent of science journals, having given a number of presentations on how to use them as a tool for learning and for developing the comfort level necessary to create a strong community. But I see the advantage of moving a bit of what I do into the digital medium. Student blogs will be a new element to my classroom this year and I’m eager to see the outcome. (I obviously have some work to do in the area of modeling “blogging brevity,” though.) I am thrilled that this session, along with my conversations with Spiro Bolos, gave me a firm grasp of the benefits and pedagogy behind blogging. I feel ready to begin!

Lastly, David Jakes and Dean Shareski discussed the idea of giving students the tools necessary to improve their communication skills, particularly with respect to giving presentations. Part of developing a strong class community requires each student believe that s/he has value. In allowing students the opportunity to share their stories, we get to know them, see what they have to offer the group and build on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Modeling artistic, educationally sound presentations, along with creating digital stories, will continue to be a focus of mine. Jakes’ and Shareski’s ideas on giving students the tools for better expression will further promote a comfortable classroom connection between classmates. And I'm also eager to model this idea for my science department colleagues. I would like to create some examples that illustrate the advantages for using a presentation tool, rather than simply having a Powerpoint be a glorified overhead.

I'm thrilled that David Jakes will be joining the Glenbrook ranks this year. I am eager to have more discussions with regard to education, to make new connections with people as passionate as those described above, and to see the benefits these new friendships will bring to the classroom. With Jakes' experience and connections, along with those of Ryan Bretag, I see a positive transformation potential for the district's educational technology vision. And dare I say, I'm eager to start building these communities in August!
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