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Education: Connecting the Lonely Profession
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by guest contributor, Suzie Boss:

Teaching has long been known as the lonely profession. The way many schools are still organized keeps teachers behind classroom doors, isolated from their colleagues. It's not a set-up that helps good ideas travel. When new teachers bail out of the profession—as nearly a third do within their first three years of teaching—they cite isolation as one of the top reasons for their early exit.

If you listen to conversations taking place out in the blogosphere, however, you get more hopeful about the possibility for grassroots change in the teaching world. Edubloggers are having robust discussions about how and why they teach, and what strategies and new tools will help their students learn. Online, teachers are able to swap ideas and improve instruction by getting critical feedback from peers—improving curriculum in much the same way that open source developers improve software.

Vicki Davis, known internationally as the author of Cool Cat Teacher Blog, goes as far as to suggest, "Teachers who innovate have a professional responsibility to blog. It makes the whole community better."

Wesley Fryer, author of the award-winning Moving at the Speed of Creativity and a self-described education "change agent," says the edublogosphere "is helping teachers connect and go further with their professional learning as educators. It's authentic professional development."

Fryer says a key is that edubloggers have figured out how to use technology to customize their learning experiences. "Teachers on their own are saying, 'I want to learn. I want to connect with other teachers. And here are the things that interest me.' Education in the 21st century should be all about differentiation. That means customized learning to match interests, experiences, and purposes of learners—including teachers."

Collaborative Projects

All this online teacher talk is starting to improve the learning experience for students, too. One example: the growth of collaborative online projects that connect learners across distances and time zones. Typically, these 21st-century projects have students using Web 2.0 tools to connect, communicate, and make their own sense of the world.

Vicki Davis, who teaches at Westwood Schools in rural Camilla, Georgia, in the U.S., found a willing collaborator in Julie Lindsay, teaching at an international school in Bangladesh. It all started when Lindsay happened upon a blog entry by Davis, and then contacted her and suggested a collaborative project. They and their students teamed up last November to create the Flat Classroom Project, using Tom Friedman's The World is Flat as the launching pad for a collaborative student investigation of globalization. Student teams used wikis, blogs, and podcasts to create their own content, and then had an international team of educators assess their products. Even Friedman weighed in—to the delight of students and teachers.

Thanks to the viral nature of the Web, the "flat classroom" idea is now spreading globally. Clay Burell is a high school humanities teacher at Korea International School. He used his own blog, Beyond School, to announce his idea for a project he called 1001 Flat World Tales and invite other teachers to join him. His idea was to use a wiki for student writing, revision, and publishing, with peer feedback coming from students in other countries and cultures. The goal: a 21st-century writers' workshop.

"With blogs, you can hawk an idea to other teachers who share your interests. I had this project up and running within four or five weeks with schools from Seoul, Denver, and Hawaii, and all without spending a penny," Burell relates. What's more, he forged a lasting connection with a fellow teacher from Hawaii. "I know we'll work together the rest of our careers."

Similarly, Davis and Lindsay have developed a collegial relationship through their Flat Classroom project. Says Lindsay, "We supported each other through the project with encouragement and became good friends. This is what we tried to encourage our students to do, too." Before the school year ended, they had launched a second global project. The Horizon Project was even more ambitious, engaging students and teachers from five schools in the U.S., Bangladesh, Austria, Australia, and China. As they did with the Flat Classroom project, they archived the project online so that other educators can use it to inform their own project design.

Fryer is encouraged when he hears about these enduring professional relationships. "One thing I'm convinced of is that we're changed by conversation, especially ongoing conversation. For professional development to change teaching practice, we need to have cohorts of teachers working together. That just doesn't happen in every school district. In the blogosphere, people do establish relationships. Blogging gives you a greater insight into someone's professional practice. It gives you a window into their mind. And out of these relationships, people have started to do some substantial projects together."

To really foster grassroots educational change, Burell believes it's critical to bring a wider audience of teachers into the online conversations. He says those speaking most often in the blogosphere tend to be edtech proponents rather than core content teachers. "Some teachers still have no idea how powerful these Web 2.0 tools can be for students," Burell says. He's making it a personal goal to bring more core content teachers into the dialogue and engage them in collaborative projects.

If only those reluctant teachers could see what teachers like Burell and Davis have seen when their students have used digital tools for active learning. "Students get so invested," Burell says. "I tell them it will be messy. They will have to learn new tools. They will have to learn how to learn and deal with frustrations. But when you see their work and read their comments, it's wonderful."

Davis recalls a point about two weeks into the Flat Classroom Project when she saw a transformation: "It was like our students grew up. They're still kids, but they became more eloquent. They understood project management, big picture thinking, meeting deadlines, having a global audience, the importance of being professional. It was a tough project, but it was great for their growth and self-confidence. I feel like they could go to college tomorrow and hold their own. For my students, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I know they'll never forget it." Speaking as a teacher who pushes the limits of what's possible in the classroom, Davis adds, "We know this is where education has to go."

Roland Barth, founding director of the Principals' Center at Harvard University suggested in Educational Leadership last year (March 2006) that too many teachers are still stuck in a grown-up version of "parallel play." It's that stage of early childhood marked by little peer interaction. He explains: "The abiding signature of parallel play in education is the self-contained classroom, with the door shut and a piece of artwork covering that little pane of glass. The cost of concealing what we do is isolation from colleagues who might cause us to examine and improve our practices." Yet, he adds, "If one day we educators could only disclose our rich craft knowledge to one another, we could transform our schools overnight."

The transformation may already be underway.

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Teachers who are adapt at blogging state it is a critical skill. "Kids who use computers are more grown up." "Talking on a computer is the solution to personal communication problems." "This is where teaching is going!" state blogging teachers.

Posted by: person on 22 Jun 07

After blogging about my teaching experiences for the past two years, I can safely say that it is a great way to break through isolation, get support, and find a sense of community with a forum to discuss ideas and challenges in teaching. I love blogging. However, I would caution against looking to technology and blogging as a panacea. The real problem that schools are organized in ways that keeps teachers isolated must be addressed. Not everyone is oriented toward reading and writing as a path for self-reflection on their teaching practice, and I think that's okay. Further, the things I choose to write about might be different than what an experienced colleague would notice and want to discuss when observing my classroom. Despite the limited opportunities I've had to watch other teachers teaching, I've found that to be one of the most helpful activities -- even more than blogging. The conversations that stem from observations are immediate, deep, and highly relevant. Perhaps when we get to the point that it's easy and affordable to set up a webcam in every classroom, teachers will be able to observe each other without physically visiting the school.

Posted by: mrc on 22 Jun 07

Ms. Boss,

Our conversation for this interview, the ideas in this article, and the general content of this website (which I subscribed to RSS months before our contact) are doing wonders for extending my thinking about shifting my classrooms further into "worldchanging" directions.

So thanks for that. :)

By the way, for a look at the 1001 Flat World Tales (my Hawaii and Denver teacher "virtual colleagues" and I are proud of our student work, and giving it authentic audiences is the whole point), it's at this link. We'll be publishing the student-editor selected works for the first edition in late July. And returning to the project in the coming school year, with more schools.

But suddenly, this seems less relevant than collaborative projects could be, in terms of promoting world citizenship in our youth. Again, thanks for starting that thought.

I look forward to your upcoming book :)

Posted by: Clay Burell on 25 Jun 07



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