Taking Action

About 6 months ago, I discovered connected learning, and it changed the way I think about education.  CL benefits students as well as classroom culture because it is interest-driven, collaborative, technological, and production-centered.  As a result, it promotes intrinsic motivation and authentic learning.  Perhaps you’re wondering, “What is CL?”  It’s a rather abstract model of learning characterized by meaningful, technological, social, and interest-based discovery.  Typically, it is used in middle elementary and up.  Could it be relevant to and benefit our early childhood learners?  I think so. But here’s the problem: it’s challenging to find examples of CL in ECE.  After all, I certainly won’t have my Pre-Kers connecting via social media to expand agency in the classroom.  

As a result, I devoted my Master’s thesis to building a working concept of how CL might look, sound, and feel in my EC classroom.  I realized that not only will I need to have a solid understanding of the hows and whys of CL in my classroom, but I will also need to communicate this information to EC stakeholders who may not understand CL or its benefit to young learners. So, my research question evolved into: How can I increase awareness and support of connected learning in early childhood education?  I began the process by gathering data from EC administrators, teachers, and families to help me understand current knowledge of and attitudes toward CL.  I administered a specific survey tailored to each group of stakeholders. Although my response rate was lower than I hoped, I received enough surveys from the different stakeholder categories to notice several patterns in the data.  

First, all participants reported having little to no understanding of CL.  Most indicated that connected learning is not used in their schools, and a few said they did not know if it is used in their schools.  After viewing a definition of CL and several EC examples, all participants were fairly to very open to the use of connected learning in EC classrooms.  Those who were fairly open indicated concerns about time, planning, and resources.  One teacher explained that his/her school intentionally minimizes technology use with young learners because “it takes away from play and outdoor time which is central to our curriculum.”  Although parents and administrators ranged from fairly to very open to the use of CL, a majority expressed varying levels of concern about its effect on academics.  One administrator wrote, “The bulk of [the kindergarten] schedule is language arts and math.  If connected learning does not take away from [academics], then it sounds great!”  The bottom line: survey results reflect a need to increase knowledge of CL and help stakeholders understand how it seamlessly meshes with “academic” work.

The data directly inform the “action” piece of my research project.  I developed a family presentation, which will be a portion of my Back-to-School Night slideshow in September.  It will help families learn about CL, including how their children may be engaged in it and why it is beneficial to them.  I also wrote a professional statement to organize my thoughts and ideas on CL in ECE.  This piece is intended to reflect the points I might cover if I were speaking with a teacher or administrator about CL in my EC classroom.  Here is my annotated reference list.  Please feel free to download any of the documents.  Use them as-is or make them your own.  But if you make changes, please consider sharing them.  After all, connected learning is openly networked.  

I posted the following 3 months ago, and it couldn’t be more appropriate as I wrap up my studies and look toward my new teaching job:

The practice of teaching and learning would be stronger and more united if we approached it like a garden co-op: we all get our hands dirty in the garden, and then we share a bountiful harvest.

Confessions of a former Twitter holdout

I took the 14’-15’ school year off from teaching, and I began to feel isolated from the profession even though I’m a full-time grad student of education.  Few, if any, of my classmates are focused on early childhood, and I missed having social interaction with colleagues in the same cardboard-constructed, marker-decorated boat.  I felt out of the loop.  As luck would have it, I was forced to join Twitter.  Yes, forced.  My wise professor @Seecantrill required us to sign up and follow teacher networks.  As it turns out, Twitter is a great platform for connecting with similarly-minded individuals.  

I love that Twitter forces users to be concise; I can spend as much or as little time browsing as I want, but I can get the gist of content at-a-glance.  And of course, it’s free.  I quickly discovered that many national professional teaching organizations use Twitter.  I have always been interested in NAEYC, a respected EC organization, but I followed them from a distance because membership is yet another out-of-pocket teacher cost.  I found them on Twitter @NAEYC, and now I enjoy their frequent links to helpful resources and interesting articles.

I also enjoy following Institute of Play @instituteofplay and Connected Learning Alliance @TheCLAlliance.  These organizations tap in to my interest in Connected Learning, gamification, and play. Browsing teacher networks on Twitter is like chunking work into microscopic bits.  It’s interest-driven and intrinsically motivated, so it doesn’t feel like work.  After a short while, however, I realized just how much these groups influenced my philosophy and vision of teaching.  As I browse and read about the amazing things other teachers are doing in their classrooms, I’m continually shaping a vision of how Connected Learning might look, sound, and feel in my Pre-K classroom.  

There are so many teacher networks on Twitter that individuals are bound to find numerous organizations that mesh with their philosophies and interests.  It’s a great resource to turn to if you’re feeling isolated in our profession.  Perhaps you’re like me and aren’t currently in the classroom.  Or maybe, you’re feeling like the black sheep of your school, longing to connect with, learn from, and share with like-minded teachers who scorn that little box we’re too often forced into.  Either way, you’re likely to find Twitter teacher networks energizing and inspiring.  It’s nice to know there are others out there who want the same things for their students.

Where would we be without our mentors?

One of my great mentors is a colleague from my first school.  I was a new teacher, and she was my classroom assistant.  She had years of experience, and she seemed to know exactly what to do in a variety of situations.  As a green teacher, I had never experienced intense tantrums or difficult interactions with parents, for example, and she supported me through these and other tough moments. Thanks to her, my “teacher’s toolbox” grew tremendously as I filed away teaching ideas, possible responses to challenging situations, management strategies, etc.  Furthermore, I admired her gentle, supportive way of interacting with our young students, and I strove to adopt many of her mannerisms.

However, I never felt like it was a one-sided relationship.  Even though she taught me everything I didn’t learn in my teacher-prep program (which was a lot!), she made me feel like I brought a lot to the table, too.  I shared things I learned in school.  I noticed that she took on some of my routines and mannerisms. This wasn’t just an effort to be consistent; she was interested in learning and growing, too.  Looking back, this was critical to my confidence as a new teacher, and it made for an incredible working relationship.  I could ask for advice on anything, and she always made sure to remind me that I did not necessarily have to go with her opinion. If I become a mentor one day, I will model myself after her.    

The teacher I am today is a mashup of my own personality and ideas along with my favorite things about my mentors and colleagues.  It’s economical for teachers to learn from others and attempt to adopt strategies, mannerisms, and routines they admire.  As individuals, we will never have all of the answers (and we’d never have time to find them, anyway).  Perhaps most importantly, our students ultimately benefit from teachers freely sharing and implementing great ideas.

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What if we all shared the good stuff?

Hello to my new classmates! Welcome to my online space.  Just like several of you, I recently completed ED677 and decided to continue with my existing blog.  If you’re interested, feel free to browse my previous posts.  I grew quite fond of my blog because each post is a snapshot of my learning at different points in time.  It’s like a little photo album of growth.  I look forward to working with each of you, and I hope everybody finds blogging to be a great learning experience, too.

I almost forgot; I should introduce myself.  I’m Bonnie, and I’m a Pre-K teacher with a newfound interest in connected learning. The problem is I can’t seem to find examples of what CL looks like in EC.  So, I’m trying to wrap my head around how it might work.  My goal for this class is to bridge the gap between my current understanding of connected learning, which is shaped by exemplars of how it works in older grades (generally 2nd and up), and the skills and knowledge I need to apply to my EC classroom.  I’m especially looking forward to our work with mentors.  I think I might need help with this one!

I enjoyed our reading of Give and Take by Adam Grant.  The story about David Hornik, an un-apologetic “giver,” resonated with me because I often feel a disconnect within our profession. What would it be like if we truly acted with others in mind?  Grant discusses the ripple effect that occurs when givers succeed and others benefit from their success.  It reminds me of a blog post I previously wrote in which I lament the difficulty in finding quality, openly-networked curations of teacher resources.  Instead, we find an abundance of resources on sale in print (spend, spend, spend at Lakeshore or Becker’s).  Or, we find it on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, where you can download mediocre content for free but fork over cash for anything worthwhile.  Simply put, nobody wants to share the good stuff!  But why not?  What if we all shared the good stuff?  

In that same post, I said the practice of teaching and learning would be so much stronger and feel more united if we approached it like a garden co-op: we all get our hands dirty in the garden, and then we all share a bountiful harvest.  I’ll put my best work out there, and I’d love to view and utilize your best work, too.  To tie this back to our Adam Grant reading, it’s giving with no expectation of taking but an openness to receiving.  Wouldn’t that result in a much better experience for teachers and consequently our students?

It’s a wrap!

My final make, a curation of gamification resources, evolved into a collaborative endeavor.  All semester long, I’ve been telling my husband, a secondary social studies teacher, about connected learning concepts and resources.  In particular, we were both drawn to gamification, and he’s currently planning a full-on gamified structure for next year’s classes.  As I began to work on my final make, I realized it would be a much stronger resource if we collaborated.  We both have accumulated a variety of gamification resources, and when we combine them in one place, the result is a more comprehensive curation that’s appropriate to teachers of different grade levels.  As we continue to learn more about gamification, we intend to add to the collection and keep it as relevant as possible.

The website curation is interest-driven, production-centered, and openly networked. It organically grew from an interest I developed over the semester, which led me down my own specialized rabbit hole of learning.  It’s also peer-supported.  My husband and I collaborated, sharing ideas and feedback as well as making joint decisions. Furthermore, it’s openly networked. The curation compiles a variety of resources for teachers of all grade levels, and it’s free to all who are interested.

I view the curation as an equitable contrast to many teaching resources I have come across (or not) in this class and also in my practice.  Oftentimes, it’s hard to find the good stuff!  Many people don’t think about it and keep work to themselves, some intentionally shield their work, and others try to profit from it (Teachers Pay Teachers, publishing a book, etc.).  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, but I personally believe that if I have a great idea or resource, why wouldn’t I want others to freely access it and benefit from it?  The practice of teaching and learning would be so much stronger and feel more united if we approached it like a garden co-op: we all get our hands dirty in the garden, and then we all share a bountiful harvest.  I’ll put my best work out there, and I’d love to view and utilize your best work, too.

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Gearing up for the last make

For my final make, I decided to curate gamification resources in the form of a website.  When I first became interested in gamification, I had a hard time finding helpful resources and making sense of the concept.  I found so much information, and it was overwhelming.  I envision this curation as a one-stop-shop for the most helpful gamification resources, an organized space for me to easily refer to and add new information.  

From the outside looking in, gamification is not especially equitable because the concept feels abstract, and it’s a major departure from the typical classroom system.  I feel like gamification is something educators admire from afar; they may appreciate an exemplar, but then they dismiss it as unworkable in their classrooms without trying anything new.  However, anybody can gamify, and it’s possible to start small.  So, a natural starting place is a curation of resources that demystify gamification and show examples big and small in a variety of subjects and grade levels.

Where do I start?  Here’s a handful of my favorite gamification videos:

It’s a pop-up, not a box!

I’m thinking about connected learning, early childhood education, and pop-ups, and one thing comes to mind: the cardboard box.

The cardboard box is the king of equity.  It’s readily available, infinitely flexible in use, and can be acquired for free; just ask nicely at your local grocery or appliance store.  Cain showed us the ultimate pop-up arcade (check out my post about him).  Cardboard box pop-ups belong in the carefully-planned early childhood classroom because they are the perfect blank slate for imaginative, young minds. Children become decision-makers, architects, artists, collaborators, and problem-solvers – and this is just in the creation of the pop-up.  Once finished, the children use their pop-up to delve deeply into a topic of interest. The teacher extends learning by reading stories and introducing concepts related to the topic.  Children can make cardboard props to support their developing understanding.  It’s a sustainable cycle of learning propelled by interest.

I gathered a set of cardboard pop-up ideas for my classroom, and these makes are my favorite.  I’m particularly drawn to #10 because it’s so flexible.  It shows an infant playing, but I know my kindergarteners would love this, too.  If this thing can physically hold up, I can see interest from infancy through first grade or so.  Furthermore, a child can utilize many different kinds of toys with this pop-up; the dramatic play possibilities are endless.  Oftentimes, the most utilitarian materials –> the most imaginative play –> the deepest learning.

It’s a pop-up, not a box!

I’m thinking about connected learning, early childhood education, and pop-ups, and one thing comes to mind: the cardboard box.

The cardboard box is the king of equity.  It’s readily available, infinitely flexible in use, and can be acquired for free; just ask nicely at your local grocery or appliance store.  Cain showed us the ultimate pop-up arcade (check out my post about him).  Cardboard box pop-ups belong in the carefully-planned early childhood classroom because they are the perfect blank slate for imaginative, young minds. Children become decision-makers, architects, artists, collaborators, and problem-solvers – and this is just in the creation of the pop-up.  Once finished, the children use their pop-up to delve deeply into a topic of interest. The teacher extends learning by reading stories and introducing concepts related to the topic.  Children can make cardboard props to support their developing understanding.  It’s a sustainable cycle of learning propelled by interest.

I gathered a set of cardboard pop-up ideas for my classroom, and these makes are my favorite.  I’m particularly drawn to #10 because it’s so flexible.  It shows an infant playing, but I know my kindergarteners would love this, too.  If this thing can physically hold up, I can see interest from infancy through first grade or so.  Furthermore, a child can utilize many different kinds of toys with this pop-up; the dramatic play possibilities are endless.  Oftentimes, the most utilitarian materials –> the most imaginative play –> the deepest learning.

Make it pop!

Thoughts on seeking equity in connected learning:

1.  Use laptop carts as a computer lab pop-up.  Their mobility makes their use flexible and therefore more suited to connected learning. Students can arrange themselves in a manner that best suits their work, and they can give themselves space from other groups.  Considering current budget issues, I feel like a laptop cart would gain a lot of “bang for the buck.”

2.  Prioritize early childhood education and set a foundation for connected learning.  We need to place all early learners in a carefully-planned environment that nurtures the skills they need to succeed in school. Teachers must tap into children’s natural inclination to connect and play as well as scaffold them to new discoveries.

3.  Use connected learning as a tool to help keep kids in school.  Many older students find school irrelevant and are unmotivated. These students are put off by traditional teaching methods, and they are learning very little.  Utilize connected learning and give them a voice.  With an interest, a purpose, and permission to discover, these students may begin to find relevance in school.  

4.  Value all learning and thinking styles.  Some students thrive in fast-paced, participatory situations such as Twitter chats.  Others prefer to quietly reflect for some time before composing a blog post.  Give all learners a chance to experiment with various modes of participation, but respect the preferred mode.  Really, it’s ok for students to frequently use their preferred mode.  That’s real life; we find what works, we use it, and we get even better at it.  Preferred is efficient and therefore frees us up to focus on challenging content.  It’s even enjoyable for many of us.

5.  Things that “pop” are the great equalizer because all people are primed to attend to the new, the unusual, they gory, the unbelievable, the gross, the unknown, and the impressive. Somebody singing on a subway?  How unusual; I think I’ll listen.  Multi-car pileup on the Turnpike?  There’s a gaper delay going the opposite direction.  Engaging lesson hook?  Students pay attention (until you return to being a “sage on the stage”). We need to go beyond piquing our students’ interest to maintaining their interest through connected learning. When learners draw upon shared purpose, interest, peer culture, and production, they’re bound to discover more things that “pop.”

What happened to play?

As the push for rigor in kindergarten continues, many of our pint-sized learners find themselves in a high-stakes learning environment.  They shuffle from lesson to lesson, standard to standard, but we only have so many hours in the school day.  Something has to give.  Unfortunately, the children’s most natural and productive learning activity gets squeezed to a minimum: play.

Free play is production-centered, interest-driven, and openly-networked. The link between home, school, and community is strong.  Playmates learn to contribute to a shared purpose, and they practice negotiating their roles in different peer cultures.  

Play is also academically-oriented.  It is a process and a product of learning.  It serves as both a sense-making activity and a medium to exhibit new knowledge.  It’s infinitely flexible; the teacher can carefully construct the environment and materials to spark play with specific content or ideas.  Free play is the young child’s connected learning.

Check out this infographic again, but read it through the lens of a kindergarten teacher.  It describes a kindergarten that values play, authentic learning and the individual child.