By Doug Peterson

Fellow, Ontario Cohort 2009

One of the true benefits of a job in education is that you get a chance to reinvent yourself every school year.  There are a lot of careers that you might have chosen otherwise that just don’t give you that luxury.  Things may change in terms of products that you build, tools that you use, projects that you’re involved with, etc., but it’s only in education that you get a fresh batch of faces and an opportunity for a total refresh every year.

It’s not just K-12, higher education gets that opportunity as well.  A brand new set of faces; perhaps new curriculum; a new chance to establish learning routines; an opportunity to try out new tools.  These are the parameters that make teaching the profession that it is.

You’ve got the curriculum that needs to be addressed but typically, you’re asked to rely on your professional discretion as to how it will happen in your classroom.  While there is the lore of people who have taught a course so often that they have lesson plans laminated and dated, that has to be the stuff that needs to be taken with some scepticism.

It can be difficult to bring in massive change in the middle of a school year, but starting on Day 1, new routines and approaches can be implemented to motivate both teacher and student.  Judicious use also can deliver on the promise of engagement and differentiation.

Think of the possibilities.

Textbooks – Do you really need to dig out and assign those moldy old static content deliverers?  Does your science textbook still have Pluto listed as a planet?  Learning and research is more robust and transparent on the web.

Software – The bane of teachers and IT Departments is ensuring that all of the applications that are installed on classroom computers is done properly and working as it should.  Even when they are, they’re only available at school.  Ironically, computer use and javelins may be the only things that can’t be sent home as homework.  (OK, just kidding about the javelins)  Student workspaces are configured and permissions properly assigned.  A slip and it leads to frustrations.  Change your thoughts from applications needing to be installed to applications web-based that just work.  It opens up a whole new world.  There are even classroom management environments if you’re in search of one.  Flexibility is also required for times of slow connections or maintenance but that’s the world that we live in.

Blogging – There are so many Rs that effective blogging can address.  Reading, writing, reflecting, responding.  The only challenge will be making the decision about whether it’s a classroom blog or whether each student has her own.  Or both?  It’s not just a language tool.  Think of it as an introspection opportunity in all subject areas where students can dig just a little deeper and comment on the thinking of their peers.

Connecting – Can you remember when an expert might be a short term event with a guest appearing in the classroom?  It might happen once a year if the students are lucky.  With the proper connections, everyone has the potential to be an expert.  Instead of collecting monies to hire an expert for a day, make the connection with another class doing the same thing where they are the experts.  Sessions can be as long as they need to be rather than a timetabling nightmare.

Storytelling – There are awesome tools available that allow for remixing, reshaping, and constructing the new story.  The tools can also be used in very trivial ways.  When I talk, I warn against the “low hanging fruit”.  Used properly though, these tools can go far beyond Friday afternoon activities to being a crucial tool for engaging stories to support curriculum.  Look for innovative ways of using tools like Google’s StreetView, for example.

Home and School Connection – The use of online tools open the home/school connection in ways never before possible.  Rather than a paper newsletter that goes home monthly/weekly, web communication can become a true communication enabler.  Find out early if anyone is going to be disadvantaged.  You may be surprised at the various ways that parents and students are connected outside the school.  Consider this a message to go and make all of the online learning transparent to everyone.

Connections – The personal iPod or cell phone can be the elephant in the room.  It’s going to be a fight that you’ll lose so embrace it.  These are really powerful devices and banning them leads to under desk one hand texting.  Have them out and on the desktop for all to see and establish a protocol for their use.  There are times when they are clearly inappropriate but also there are times for learning and active use and discovery.  Use them to expand the connectivity in your classroom.

Amalgamating Content – It’s also important that access to all of these resources is easily available to all involved whether it be students, parents, other classes in your school, collaborating classes world-wide, and principals.  Make it easy on yourself by looking at a class wiki that’s easily updated without extra tools, FTP, etc.  Remember that the wiki isn’t just about you.  The more collaborators, the richer the content.

Movies – There was a time when making movies in the classroom involved high-end equipment and specialized lighting, sounds, etc.  There still is room for that as a discipline but the world has moved on.  Online movie sharing has made this media available to everyone.  Cell phones and mini-cameras bring movie making to the masses.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Even if you aren’t ready to move in that direction, your students are!  Don’t forget that screencasting can be equally as compelling.  The cool educational thing – making a movie requires a lot of thought and research!

The News – There was a time when current events was an important component of every day but that has faded in some quarters.  The connected classroom can bring that back with a vengeance.  Subscribe to news feeds or content and you’ll be amazed at what’s available daily.  Imagine a click and you’re watching a movie about something relevant to today’s lesson.  Or, use any of the earth viewing tools to zoom in on locations and put studies in context.  You don’t necessarily have to do the work for yourself.  Follow some great blogs or online bookmarking feeds.  There are lots of people documenting the best of the best.  Why start from scratch?

Do Some Good – As the world becomes smaller when connected, so does awareness of global and local issues.  Good global citizens are aware of these issues and can direct their fundraising or benevolence efforts toward them.  Once students are aware of the need, it may be difficult deciding where to direct their energies.

Make Something – The availability of all of the reading can lull you and students into being passive consumers of it.  You’ll never read it all anyway so don’t try.  Read enough and then get moving.  Write a program; solve a problem; develop web content; solve a puzzle; take and analyze some measurements; build a birdhouse…

Professional Growth – Before this turns into a book, take time to do something for yourself.  You can’t beat going to a conference or other Professional Development event but I would urge you to think of them differently.  Instead of a place to go to learn something new, think of them as a place to make connections and consolidate your thoughts.  Instead, get yourself a Twitter account and follow some great educators and others, read some blogs, grab some RSS feeds and do the reading and thinking daily.  Don’t just subscribe to people that you can easily agree with.  If you consider yourself a liberal in thinking, latch on to one or two conservative voices.  They’ll make your blood boil but open up windows to new sides of the discussion.

Yes, it’s September and classrooms and lecture halls can be exactly what you want them to be.  The first lessons establish the norms and expectations for the new year.  It’s a chance to be exactly what you want to be.  So, what do you want to be as you get a fresh start?


image: By tillweTill Westermaye
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Susan Carter Morgan

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