Sunday, July 11, 2010

Celebrating Square Pegs

Before becoming a teacher I worked for 13 years for one of the major high street banks. During that time I made something of a speciality of not fitting in. That's not to say that I was a Johnny No Mates ( at least I hope ), rather that I managed to to be slightly out of step with the thinking of those around me. When I worked in technical teams I was the non-techie, the one more interested in the business operations side of the systems I was helping to develop. So much so that I ended up 'going native' and working as a manager in the processing centre I had designed a system for ( and ending up as an end user of my own system - now there's end user testing with a vengeance ). Once out of the technical area I was the non banker amongst bankers. Far from being a hindrance to my career it enabled me carve my own niche. My perspective was at a tangent to others and my ideas a little left of field. And this was valued and rewarded. During my most productive time I was developing a management information system and rolling it out across several business areas. I was totally 'in my element' and firing on all cylinders - I could almost feel the synapses in my brain connecting I was so focused on what I was doing. 

Then slowly it started to change - my element started to be perceived as my comfort zone. I started coming under pressure to get involved with projects I had no interest in and which I felt I had little to contribute to. Increasingly I was expected to become like all the other project managers in the department and fit in. This culminated in a course called 'Leading to be Customer Driven'. This was the bank's drive to turn us all into lean, mean, selling machines, maximising profit for the shareholder. Your bosses, colleagues and people you managed were all invited to give you feedback on how to become more 'customer focused' and then you spent 3 days on a residential course coming up with an action plan on how to achieve this. My feedback was fairly unanimous - you are good at what you do but you need to get more involved in the business side. 

The first session of the 3 day course was reviewing your feedback and drawing up action points on a flip chart. I dutifully drew up my list, stop doing the stuff I enjoyed and start doing the stuff that bored me ( I paraphrase but you get the drift ). The facilitator came over and read my carefully prepared, toeing the party line action plan and asked me a question - so how will you feel when you've achieved this plan? Bored, frustrated and utterly demotivated was my answer. Maybe you need to look at the plan again he said before moving on to the next flip chart. 

The course turned out to be one of the turning points in my life. Throughout the three days I battled with the conflict between my competitive nature and my drive to succeed and the growing realisation that I was in the wrong job. The course became a sort of group therapy as I talked and occasionally sobbed my way through my decision making process. By the end of the course I was resolved that it was time for me to move on. During the final washup I received a piece of advice that I've followed ever since - 'nurture your inner anarchist'.  

So what has all this navel gazing got to do with education? Ken Robinson basically. Last year I watched his TED talk on schools killing creativity and about how we could be helping students to be in their element.

This has bee followed this year with a second TED talk:-

From my own experience I know that when I am working in my element I am happy and fulfilled and making a difference. When I am being forced to conform I am miserable and disruptive and demotivated. How many of my students have I just described? How do I reconcile this when I have 30 students in front of me and targets to meet? When a student not in his or her element is capable of totally destroying a lesson for the rest? Not got an answer and not looking for a Dead Poets - Captain, my Captain moment. Just shouldn't we be able to harness those inner anarchist and nurture them? Looks like I'm a hopeless optimist to the last.

Twittering Classes

On Friday I decided to take a flyer and do a lesson on Twitter with my year 9 group. This was a bit of a last minute decision. We had been doing some work to prepare them for Functional Skills, a SOW based round the World Cup and Fantasy football, using spreadsheets and databases. This had gone well but was starting to lose momentum now that England had been knocked out and the competition was drawing to a close. Additionally I had gradually become aware that lots of my students were using Twitter ( partly as a result of the use of Twitter as an unofficial 'back channel' in my lessons ). This had come as a surprise to me ( that they were using Twitter, not that teenagers are occasionally off task in lessons ) as conventional wisdom is that teenagers are not interested in Twitter- Teens don't blog or twitter from where I found this graph:-

However a quick show of hands at the start of the lesson confirmed that over half the class had a Twitter account. Was the research wrong or just out of date? The number of items in the news about Twitter has greatly increased over the last year. Or were my students not typical? Twitter had featured a few times in our lessons over the last year so maybe this had raised the profile. We used this video as part of the Impact of Social Media lessons:-

We had also looked at the use of Hashtags, #uksnow after the school was closed due to snow and #getmehome after several students were stranded abroad due to the ash cloud.

Having only decided the night before to do the lesson on Twitter I had a rather late night pulling together resources. Fortunately I had plenty of articles and tools bookmarked so started to trawl through my Diigo account. I always like to have a video playing while the students are coming in and logging on and this one fitted the bill:-

Here's what I came up with, needs tidying up a bit:-

I also did a shout out to my PLN to say Hi and where they were from to highlight the use of hashtags and to show how Twitter can connect you across the world and was really pleased at how many people kindly responded:-

Students were surprised by the number of people round the world speaking to them.

My main objective of the lesson ( the first of 2 ) was to ensure that students understood how to use Twitter safely. My concern was that many may be using it as an MSN or Facebook substitute as it was not blocked in school and may not understand the risks of having a public account. I got the students who were already using Twitter to explain what it was and how they were using it. It was interesting that they described it in terms of IM not mentioning the 140 character limit or RT, DM etc A couple could explain the use of hashtags so we started by looking at the hashtag I had set up and students with accounts posted tweets using it ( I wanted to make sure that those who did not have an account did not feel pressured to create one ). We had the obligatory:-

as well as the slightly stranger:-

Overall, however, the students were somewhat tongue-tied - as one said to me later 'it's no fun now you are letting us'. Remember this lesson was about Twitter itself, not using it as a classroom tool to aid another topic. We moved on to the use of different twitter tools as a way of explaining more features of Twitter. I put Twitter Followers on the whiteboard with my Twitter account to show a visual representation of followers. They were impressed by this and wanted to know how to get lots more followers, this being an aim in itself, like collecting cigarette cards when I was kid. Next we looked at TwitterSheep which creates a word cloud from your followers bios. This is mine:-

No prizes for guessing the sort of people in my PLN. When my students tried this app most were coming up with more or less blank pages. Hardly anyone had filled in their bios. I explained the process I go through when deciding to follow someone back. First I look at their bios to see if they are a teacher or in education, then I look at what they are posting to see whether it is stuff I am interested in. If they have not filled in their bios I am very unlikely to follow back. I also explained how I use Twitter partly to find new ideas for lessons. Wordle, Edmodo, Diigo and Solvr which we have used in lessons this year have all come from suggestions from my PLN as have many other resources, articles and ideas. 

With students starting to fill in bios I thought it was time to reinforce the e-safety aspect and got them to google themselves. Despite having done this exercise in the past they were still shocked that google could find them, particularly if they had a Twitter account. I showed them the search results of googling my name to reinforce just how much Google can find ( in my case I deliberately cultivated a positive online presence ). I also went through some case studies of people coming unstuck as a result of unwise posts to Twitter. Many students decided to protect their tweets and as Twitter, unlike Facebook, is not blocked at my school I was able to help them do this by showing them how to use the settings. The message did not get through to all students however. Despite posting:-


this student concluded:-

So still some work to be done.

We then moved onto different aspects of Twitter use and impact which will form the majority of the next lesson ( my last with the group ). The final outcome will be a Prezi presentation on what they have learnt.

As a plenary I got students to tweet something they had learnt about Twitter that they didn't know at the start of the lesson:-


I'll leave the last word to one of my students:-