Have you heard of the Teaching Channel? Neither had I until a talented video producer gave me a call and asked if I would be willing to serve as a pedagogical expert in a short professional development video. My task: Coach a first-year social studies teacher through the process of integrating social media into her Holocaust unit.
Teaching Channel is a video showcase — on the Internet and TV (PBS) — of inspiring and effective teaching practices in America’s schools. Since their “beta launch” in early June, they have reached thousands of teachers in all 50 states. Their mission aligns with the goal many of us share: to improve the outcomes for all students in America. The lessons are geared for novice teachers but the truth is these well-produced videos are great for even the most seasoned educator. (The Teaching Channel is a nonprofit and has received seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.)
After searching the keywords teaching and social media on the Web, Aaron, a video producer, called me to chat. He wanted a lesson on social media but wasn’t sure where to take it. He knew he wanted me to serve in a coaching role and help a novice teacher use social media while he captured the experience on film. But what might that actually look like? I was intrigued. What would it be like to work virtually with a brand-new teacher and novice technology user (at least in terms of connecting and collaborating) who was not in my immediate proximity? We started with a Skype call (it was the teacher’s first ) and an exchange of a few emails. I just let the lesson planning and my suggestions happen naturally. It simply felt like “business as usual” to me, and I believe that is the reason the experience ultimately worked so well in terms of outcomes.
Getting the Right Person on the Bus
I also believe that in this kind of situation, a lot rides on the willingness and openness of the teacher. The first teacher we worked with on this project was a full time substitute who was a part time fitness trainer. He was full of passion for fitness and our conversations were rich and informative, but there was no buy-in for the lesson planning on social media. He had so many reasons why this wasn’t going to work. Which really points strongly to a key disposition of effective teachers. Patricia, the New Jersey teacher who appears in the finished video, was smart, open, eager to learn new things, teachable, and willing to share what she already knew (and didn’t know).
There were lots of reasons, which I list below, why we could have thrown in the towel on this lesson. But Patricia didn’t let any of these things dissuade her. She wasn’t easily offended or defensive, and we warmed to each other quickly off and online (I eventually traveled to her school). What I loved most about Patricia was her love for and commitment to the kids in her classroom. It was obvious she understood the balance between the business of learning and letting kids be who they are and making space for laughter and caring. Because there was very little time to develop trust between us — and coaching takes trust — I believe it was our predisposition to be mutually accountable to each other and the willingness to respect each other’s strengths that made this coaching relationship a success.
Why PLNs Are Important for Every Teacher
We didn’t make up the lesson theme just for the video. Patricia was really teaching the Holocaust, and the students were actually reading Anne Frank’s diary. What you see happening in the video is exactly how it went down — it wasn’t staged. We explored the topic and brainstormed together while I looked for opportunities to embed memorable learning moments. The fact that Mary Worrell, my friend and former PLP program admin, lives in Amsterdam and had taken me to the House of Anne Frank a month or two earlier was simply serendipitous. As was the connection that one of the production folks had with an Amsterdam videographer, allowing us to film what happened on the Anne Frank museum side of things.
Patricia was actually teaching about Anne Frank — my PLN included an Amsterdam connection — so I was quick to suggest using Skype to connect with museum curators. This lesson unfolded the way that lesson planning should unfold– as a discovery-driven, passion-based, learning journey, for both the teacher and the students. It truly underscored the value of having a personal learning network and knowing how to leverage it to create great learning experiences.
The truth is that any teacher can have professional learning experiences like this one if they are connected educators. If Patricia had been far enough along on the path to becoming a connected educator, she could have reached out to her own PLN and achieved a contact in the Netherlands that would have resulted in a similar outcome. This wasn’t about my personal influence, but about my ability to tap into a global network of teaching colleagues. Thanks to this connected coaching experience, Patricia now has all the evidence and motivation she needs to begin this network-building journey for herself (a fact she makes clear near the end of the video).
Learning First – Tools Second
What I really loved about this experience was that our focus was on the curriculum, not the technology, even though the purpose of the lesson was to model effective use of social media. We didn’t come into the lesson thinking, OK, we want to use Skype and connect with someone internationally. Or We we need to use VoiceThread because it’s a cool tool. Rather, the events that unfolded in the planning flowed naturally from the learning objectives to the appropriate technologies. The tools were chosen after we figured out what we wanted the students to know and be able to do. The technology served the learning.
One piece that got left out of the final cut was an interview done with Thomas, a man in his late twenties who had grown up in schools in Amsterdam and whose parents and grandparents had vivid memories of the war. The students sent Thomas a list of questions. He responded thoughtfully to each one. In the Teaching Channel video, one of Patricia’s students talks about how valuable it was to not just read stories in a book about the Holocaust, but to actually be part of a conversation with someone who had experience with the facts.
We need to pay attention to this. There is something about living narrative that makes learning come alive for kids and for us all. The willingness of Thomas to ask his grandparents to refresh his memory about the events that happened in the war made the learning more emotional and personal. He shared that it is the culture in the Netherlands to not talk about such things openly, so the experience became one of personal risk for him as well. None of us were just going through the motions in this lesson, just to create a how-to teaching video. Everyone was pushing themselves and taking chances in this learning experience. We were all nudged out of our comfort zones in some way.
Patricia also invited the students to reflect about the effectiveness of the tools in their own processing and understanding of the information, and their insights add something important to this teaching video. We’re able to see the experience through the lens of the learner. And it could have been amplified even more. If these kids had blogged about the experience using their own unique voices, just think of the additional insight we all could have gained. Our students need to be blogging about their learning.
Background Details: Why We Might Have Given Up, or (smile) Talk about a Really Bad Hair Day!
There were lots of reasons any of those involved in this project could have given up before we reached the end. I’m so glad we didn’t. The ROI was so valuable for the teacher, myself, Mary, the kids, the folks at the house of Anne Frank, Thomas, the video team, and Patricia’s colleagues who watched in the background. Here’s some of what we faced:
- The day we shot the Skype footage from my office the a/c was broken and it was 110 degrees inside.
- Patricia’s technology wasn’t working the day we first connected, and Skype was blocked at her school.
- I got three hours of sleep the night before and drove from Virginia Beach to New Jersey the morning of the international chat due to a conflict of schedule.
- The school didn’t have a/c and filming took place during a New Jersey heat wave. We were all wiping sweat. Makeup quickly melted and hair frizzed.
- When I arrived the film crew had been lugging equipment up and down four flights of steep stairs. Patricia’s classroom was on the top floor and the computer lab was on the bottom floor.
- A torrential downpour accompanied by loud cracks of lightning occurred during the interview pieces. We kept having to stop and start and try to get our ideas out between thunderbolts, which made fluid thinking difficult.
- The rain was so intense the school flooded, triggering a continuous stream of announcements and other interruptions.
- My car battery died, and we had to find a stranger willing to walk through the flooded streets and give us a jump. But by then, the learning work was done!
Definitely an experience I will never ever forget and yet hope to do again soon.
- I believe in-house video production teams should regularly capture “just in time” learning in schools and share across the system. Teachers and support staff need to be connected educators who understand how to use the electronic tools available to them to learn and document their learning for others.
- Connected Coaching needs to be a regular part of the PLN-building experience. We all need guidance in creating PLNs with real purpose. One way to give back to the profession is to share your expertise with novices — whether it be new teachers, new technology users, or educators new to the shifting pedagogy of the 21st century. Make the time.
- Students need to be part of the learning and development process. Seek their input before, during, and after the lessons.
- We all start at ground zero when learning something new.
- A group of international strangers who all are united around a shared goal can become colleagues and make learning work seamlessly if they are willing to take risks and embrace the new.
- Learning is not a passive experience anymore. It is collaborative, active, creative, and connected.
- Connected Coaches need to exhibit confidence around learning and make the tools invisible. What was important in my conversations with Patricia was the pedagogy and how it was supported by technology- not the technology itself.
- Because I blog and share my learning life, I have a digital footprint. I was findable. And from my sharing a connection was made. Out of that connection came an idea for a innovative collaboration and as a result we acted collectively across states and oceans to create a legacy — and memorable learning moment for all of us, and most especially for a group of great kids in New Jersey.