Sunday, February 8, 2015

Getting Started As A Connected Classroom

There are three main reasons I believe in the power of becoming a connected classroom:

1. To connect my students (who live at our school and away from their families) with their families back home. It is so important for me to give the parents and sponsors a window into their child's learning, experiences, growth and exciting moments! My goal is for my students' families to feel that my twitter and Instagram accounts give them access to our classroom community and to their child. At any given moment of the school day, a parent can check in, catch up, and be reassured by the updates we have posted. I have had parents tell me that this accessibility has helped them to keep their student enrolled in our school, and so for me, this is reason enough to keep tweeting & posting from our classroom!

2. To make experts, and other learners accessible to my students. The beauty of social media is the way it breaks down walls and brings us all together. Through social media we have engaged with artists, authors, politicians, organizations, celebrities, athletes, and other students and teachers around the globe! These are opportunities for connectivity that none of us would have otherwise had and they provide unique insights, answers, and learning experiences for my second graders!

3. To share what we are doing with the educational community. As someone who believes that inspiration is cyclical, I have been motivated, encouraged, and inspired by the glimpses that social media has given me into other classrooms. It's only right that I should share in turn, and hope to motivate, encourage or inspire others!

So how to get started? I started my Connected Classroom Journey on twitter. At the onset, I was just a consumer, reading and following and taking it all in. Once I realized the power that connection could provide to my teaching and classroom, I made a goal to "tweet" something we were doing once a week. Soon the goal became once a day, and now on most days we tweet semi-consistently, providing a pretty clear picture of what's happening in room 36! Here are my top tips for you if you're just getting started:

1. Open a twitter account. If you don't know how, this will help.

2. Limit your consumerism to prevent overload! The number one reason I've heard from people who don't like twitter is that it is overwhelming! I get this. I have actually taken to limiting how often I allow myself to scan my Home Feed. I suggest doing the same, and limiting who you follow at first, to tweeters whose content you find really interesting and inspiring. Once you've watched some other educators doing the twitter thing, you'll feel more ready to jump in yourself! Remember that "comparison is the thief of joy" and try not to compare your social media presence or your classroom to anyone else's. You're only getting and giving a glimpse, try to keep that in perspective! :)

3. Set a goal. Will you tweet once a week? Once a day? Every other? Set a goal and make it happen. Make it fun!

4. Interact with some other people. Reply to articles, tweets or pictures that interest you or your students. Give kudos, tweet to authors when you're reading their books, celebrities when your students mention them in class, policy makers when there is a cause you believe in. Many times you won't hear back, but when you do, it's very exciting for you AND your students!

5. My number one tip is to get your students involved in the process! Every student in my class knows how to take a photo, video, hyperlapse, and form a tweet. They earn "photog of the moment" status through good behavior and hard work throughout the day, and if they have the device in their possession, they are free to play photo journalists to their hearts content. This provides me with plenty of material to use in our posts, and takes the pressure off me to teach AND capture the moments! My students don't post without me over their shoulder, but they have become experts at capturing moments in our classroom for us to share via social media (or just laugh about at home later). Warning: Enabling student photographers will result in endless supply of unflattering, mouth-open pictures of the teacher, but that's what the delete button is for! ;)

Which platform?

I utilize Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for different reasons. I've found that Twitter is best for connecting, and providing a window into our classroom. Facebook has its place for massive picture uploads, closed groups and secure sharing, but Instagram is quickly becoming my favorite spot for finding visual inspiration, creative ideas, and a newsfeed that can't be hijacked by people who I don't follow tagging themselves in things with people who I do follow. (A blog on how I use Instagram instructionally to come!)

A final thought:
In my humble opinion, it seems for some educators, this whole "Connected Educator" movement is getting out of hand. I recently received a PM from a teacher in another state that said "Thank you for following me on Twitter and Instagram even though you have a combined following of almost 1,000 people and my combined following is 24."
She was intending to be funny, but the sentiment beneath the statement is one I've heard before and find a bit disheartening and even silly. If you're a "teacher rockstar" I hope your biggest fans are the students you serve, their parents, and the professionals you teach alongside every day. If the rest of the world doesn't discover you and embrace your "rockstar" status via social media, it's probably because you spent more of your time being an amazing teacher than on promoting yourself, and that makes you a real rockstar in my book. I absolutely believe in connecting with other educators, sharing my learning and learning from others around the country and the globe. I have learned a ton from my Professional Learning Network on Twitter & Instagram especially, but I am mindful to invest the most of my "networking" energy to connect with the educators who I can get the real picture of, and the most consistent inspiration from, the ones in my own school building who pour into me and allow me to pour back. Connection matters, and there are no shortage of inspiring presences on all social media platforms. However, I'd offer this thought: If you're only connecting with "teacher rockstars" with huge followings from other schools, and neglecting the ones busting their butts down the hall, you're missing out! Do both if you can, but when you have to choose, I urge you to choose real live teachers who are pouring into the same population of students that you are. Those relationships are real and tangible and vulnerable and valuable too! *end of social media rant.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

I Am Garry Gilliam: Teaching The POWER of Possibility in the Classroom.

For the record, I have never met Seattle Seahawks Lineman, Garry Gilliam. I was not his teacher when he walked the halls of the Milton Hershey School, because for most of his school career, I was still in school myself. In 2009 when he graduated though, I was sitting in the audience as a staff member, having landed my dream teaching job in the elementary school a few years earlier. I would love to tell you that I remember the Garry Gilliam moment, or that when his name was called I got chills of some kind, but that would be misleading. The truth is that I have sat through every high school graduation since 2005 with bated breath, watching kids who I don't know personally, walk across a stage into a life of possibility. I'm required by my contract to attend this event, but I'd go even if I wasn't, because a Milton Hershey School graduation is a powerful experience even when you don't know the students personally. I am sure that in 2009, I watched the way I always do with hope and optimism and a bit of a daydream that one day, each student that has walked through MY classroom door would be walking that stage too, bursting with hope, jumbling fear and excitement, some with tears, some with swagger, most with trepidation and all glowing with POSSIBILITY to do what they will with their one wild and precious life.
I believe in the mission of my school. I believe in what we are doing here. We offer hope and opportunity to kids who need and deserve it. Then we teach them to pursue their dreams with tenacity, grit, and HOPE. We empower them with knowledge and work habits, and a healthy respect for hard work and some swagger in the face of adversity. We tell them that many, many others have paved the way before them. We believe in them, we love them. We open all the doors that we can and then step back and hope and pray and encourage as they decide how they'll walk on through. It is both fulfilling and draining, it is exciting and nerve-wracking, and it matters, everyday it matters.
Garry Gilliam is not the first successful MHS Alumni. He won't be the last. When you're part of our community you get to see our success stories every day. They are the beacon that keep us working hard and pouring out love when we feel spent or depleted by the failures that are also inevitable. Our current president, Pete Gurt is one such beacon. He was a Milt and for as long as I've been a part of the MHS community (10 years, woot woot), he has been an agent of change and empowerment on multiple levels and serves as a constant reminder to our students that they can be just like him if they work like he did, if they care like he does. He dreamed as an elementary schooler of being the president, and he is.

In our Elementary School building we have several Alumni heroes who came back to give back. They once walked these halls as hopeful youngsters and now serve as living inspiration to generations of kids. We have house parents who grew up in student homes and came back to pour their lives into the lives of our students. We have alumni who are successful business men and women, doctors, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, politicians, performing artists, and on and on. Whenever I can connect with alumni who are living their dream, I bring this to the attention of my students. I want them to have as many examples as possible of kids who stood in their shoes and grew up to make a footprint of influence. I want them to see that the hard work, the sacrifice of being away from family, the dreaming big, pays off.
A famous football player, on his way to the SuperBowl stirs up ALOT of excitement with the elementary school crowd. He's famous, he's a hero, he's just SO cool! What's more, he's a Milt who comes back! He visits his family here and remembers us even now that he's made it big. When I realized that our reading story this week about jellyfish wasn't drumming up near as much excitement as the Seattle SeaHawks, I knew that I should just go with the football flow. It was easy, we talked about Garry, about the hardships he had to overcome and the grit he had to apply to make his dreams a reality. The enthusiasm was contagious. Here we had another living example of one of our own, overcoming obstacles and achieving his dreams. I decided to put my camera on (as I often do) one day to capture some of the conversations about him, and it turned into a tribute video to send him so he would know that we are rooting for him, and for us to look back on and remember that we too, can be whatever we want to be as long as we never quit! I had no idea it would become so widespread, and the 2nd graders are giddy over it!
Today I'll be actually paying attention to the Super Bowl for the first time in...well...ever. I'll be cheering for Garry Gilliam and the SeaHawks because he's family. I'll be rooting for them to win, but even if they don't they already have, by inspiring a group of the most capable and lovable 7 year olds that anything is possible and that dreams can come true. Next Saturday I'll be having brunch with my first 4th grade class who will graduate next year teeming with the same hope and opportunity as Garry, Denise, Chris, Pete, Anna, Sterling, Doug, Terry, Jason and so many others who have taken the "much" they have been given, and exceeded our expectations!