Sunday, April 6, 2008

Blog Reading for Professional Development

I must admit that when our instructor, Jenn, asked us to establish an RSS feed from Google Reader, I did just that--but I didn't really understand what it was or how it was going to help me. I remember being a bit confused about just who to subscribe to, and just what it was I was signing up for. I remember checking through the weblinks provided on Blackboard and subscribing willy-nilly to anything that sounded remotely useful. And then I pretty much forgot about it as I lurched from week to week trying to figure out the new Web 2.0 tool du jour. Occasionally my google reader page would appear as I roamed cyberspace looking for suitable materials for my blog. Sometimes I even found something directly related to my task-at-hand, and began to think 'hey, this really is useful---I have to remember this'.

What I'm confessing is the fact that I didn't really understand that I was supposed to check this page regularly--daily even perhaps! At this point I'm only beginning to read particular blogs regularly both for pleasure and for professional development. The pleasure comes from enjoying the personal styles of the writing and the professional development comes from knowing that I am responding to the thoughts and themes of the gurus in the world of Teacher-librarians and Information Technology.

The gurus are key. One of the biggest challenges for me, is knowing I've found a reputable source. The volume of information on the web is mindboggling--- 50 million blogs already??? Who should I pay attention to and how will I find them? Plunging into this program, is key because I have an instructor I trust to show me the way. I have frequently felt lost and confused. Remembering that our instructor was available for amplification and re-direction helped tremendously.

A frequent experience for me of reading blogs for professional development is getting sidetracked. Because bloggers have the ability to add a hyperlink to their writing I am frequently lured away from the blog I'm reading to explore a connected site. This is both positive and problematic. Quick explanations and clarifications are available at the click of a key and that is a good thing. But the trip to the hyperlink can lead to another, and another, and pretty soon an hour or two has passed and I've read some very interesting things, BUT I haven't got through the material I needed to cover, and I'm still not sure what was essential. Nonetheless, I have gone a lot of interesting places on the web and the cumulative effect of all the reading I've done means that the language and themes are sounding less foreign. I guess I'm still thinking about this as an immersion experience...

One of my favourite sources is Lee Lefever, who along with his wife and partner Sachi, produce the In Plain English videos. Their videos are for those of us who are new to technology-land but ready to begin using some of the Web 2.0 tools. I recently heard LeFever interviewed on Spark, a CBC radio program and podcast. He explained that they try to whittle away the extraneous, to focus on how this tool can be used---not a detailed technical explanation of how it works.

LeFever writes on his blog how his own education shaped his thinking about effective ways to present information. He described the problems he encountered whenever new information and ways of thinking were presented without context.

Talkin' Bout My Education By leelefever on March 27, 2008 - 10:56am

Looking back, context is what I have always missed in education. If someone could put a new idea in the context of the real world or show me how it enables other things, I would get it. It's just my learning style - I need the big picture before the details make any sense. By diving directly into T accounts and least common denominators, I got caught up in trying to memorize instead of understand. What I needed to know was why - why this works the way it does - and why it matters to me.

So, I think the connection to our style of videos is obvious. They are based on all the things that don't work for me in education. When I see explanations on the Web, the remind me of school - they assume too much. They sometimes dive directly into how something works and spend little time on context.

For me, it's a big problem - a problem that I believe others feel too. When it comes time for me to try to explain something, it just feels right to look at the world from the perspective that would have made sense to me that first day of accounting class - build meaning with context first, then explore details.

Reading LeFever's blog has helped me think about the ways video can be used in education. The low-tech look of the videos models a way of sharing information that is accessible to students and teachers. I especially like the fact that you don't see any part of the speaker except his hands. We are so bombarded by perfect images of perfect bodies it is very refreshing to see how effective simple visuals are. In fact, I can imagine making a video in this style myself.

Joyce Valenza' s blog at School Library Journal is another that I read regularly. She helped my organizational challenges, by starting off the year with a detailed and hyperlinked list of major themes for school librarians and Web 2.0 technology. As I progressed through this course, looking at one new Web tool after another, I found myself returning to her site, and this particular blog entry, over and over.

That said, I do find the frequency of her posts a bit overwhelming. Maybe it's because of her high level of expertise and involvement in the field, but sometimes I don't really understand what she's writing about. She uses so many acronyms that don't mean anything to me (yet). A lot of her topics really remind me that she is writing about the school library world in the United States. I would really like to find a Canadian version of Valenza... For example, one of her recent posts explored copyright issues, something I'd really like to understand better, but I'm still wondering about the Canadian application. At this point in my learning, spending more time at her virtual library would probably be more useful to me.

Will Richardson
is another blogger I like to read. Something in his style leaves me feeling more reflective, more part of the conversation. Maybe his posts are a little more philosophical. When I read Valenza I feel kind of frantic---like there is no way I will ever absorb all this important stuff, whereas with Richardson there is lots of new information but it is presented in a more bite-sized way. Of course I'm also fond of Richardson because I found his book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom extremely helpful. Being able to re-read, and highlight the text is still works for me.

There are many more blogs out there to read, but for me, too many, quickly becomes too much. I will close with the insights presented by Mike Curtain, writing on RSS and Blogs as Professional Development, who acknowledges my blog fatigue AND reminds me that the complexity of the diverse voices ultimately will benefit me as a learner.

For a long time I’ve been looking at models of professional development that go beyond the one-shot after-school workshop. As I’ve studied models of adult learning and become more familiar with the ways that teachers are successful at improving their practice, I’ve realized that good professional development experiences share a few core qualities:

  • They are sustained, occurring over weeks, months, or even years.
  • They are gradual and incremental, involving a lot of short but connected steps with moments of reflection and integration in between.
  • They are collaborative, involving questions, support, and conversation with other teachers in similar situations.
  • They directly meet the teacher’s needs, offering solutions to real problems in our every day experience in the classroom.
  • Over time, they change the way we see the world and therefore what we do with our students each day in the classroom.

As I become more invested in reading and tracking blogs through RSS, I’m coming to realize that those 15 minute sessions browsing headlines in Pageflakes and posting comments on blogs are starting to add up. Every day I have a little opportunity to see what others are doing and to ask myself why I do what I do and how I could do it better.

When a teacher starts using an RSS aggregator to keep on top of news stories, blog posts, and wiki updates, she is really taking the reins and becoming the editor-in-chief of her own professional development journal. “I want to learn about differentiating instruction in a social studies classroom and using a SmartBoard. I found six or seven experts in each area and they are going to be frequent contributors to my journal. When I don’t understand or disagree, I’m going to let them know and listen carefully to their responses and the comments of other people like me. At the end of the year, I’m going to know a lot more about these topics than I do now.”

The best part of it is that the singular voice of the workshop lecturer or methods text (shudder) gives way to a cacophony of differing agendas, viewpoints, backgrounds, and ideas. We are forced to confront the complexity of our classroom experience and to forge - and frequently thereafter to re-visit and re-evaluate - our own understandings and practices. Simple answers provided by gurus don’t long satisfy intelligent teachers: they need to pick and choose from a buffet of best practices and ideas. Our RSS professional development journal does just that.


Val said...

Hi Steph: Great picture of you and the kids on Parksville beach. It's my favourite beach on the island. We frequent it often in all seasons.

Yes,yes, yes...I can relate to all you are saying. It took me several weeks to figure out what an RSS feed was. I signed up for ones but then said Okay what next? I can relate to your hyper-links 'hysteria' it's never ending and zaps time like there's no tomorrow. Thanks for posting the Lee Lefever post. I look forward to looking at his blog. Isn't the pageflakes on Will Richardson's great and at the same time overwhelming? Off to more blogging. Great info. Thanks Val

Linda Morgan said...

I hadn't thought of looking for a Lee Lefever blog - I'm a fan of his so I'll check that out for sure.

I liked your five points on good prof development experiences...very practical.

Ronda said...

Hi Steph,

LeFever's videos made all difference for me, too, when we started this learning journey! I think many others appreciate this approach to "complicated" material. I found a Hamlet video done in "Lefever-style" on Valenza's High School web site (it was appropriately titled: Hamlet Revenge in Plain English") Check it out! It's a tribute to Lefever's teaching ability!