Building Digital Leaders

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If you aren’t familiar with Black Mirror it is a British television anthology series, currently on Netflix, that features speculative fiction that focuses on modern society, and the often unanticipated consequences of new technologies. It is thought provoking, highly relevant in today’s rapidly changing world, and definitely worth checking out.

It has left me  thinking a lot about the unchartered waters our youth, their parents and their teachers must navigate as part of the digital age that is our reality. This is something I consider constantly in the work I do but it is also a focus in supporting my very own “digital natives”, that being my eleven and thirteen year olds at home  My kids use Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly and YouTube regularly, therefore so do I. I make a point of it.  How can I best support them if I don’t understand these platforms myself? At home, we have open, specific and continuous conversations about social media etiquette, on-line responsibilities and the idea of developing a positive digital footprint. I follow them, I encourage my own friends to keep an eye out and I check their accounts regularly. Perhaps, based on my line of work I am the exception, not the norm. What role are most parents taking in the digital lives of their children?  

Like with any new learning, kids need practice.  They need modeling.  They need feedback.  They need guidance and support.  Not surprisingly my two have made mistakes along the way.  This seems inevitable as they make their way through this “training wheel phase”. I am grateful for these hiccups, as it gives us the opportunity to have real, contextual and meaningful conversations around what it looks like to be a responsible digital citizen.  I would much rather have them make these mistakes right now at age 11 in a scaffolded, protected setting, then at age 18. We see it time and time again.  One photo…one offensive remark…one case of bad judgement…one mistake… and a life is changed forever.   We don’t have to look far to find examples of people making bad choices in a digital context for the world to see. We don’t have to look far to find examples of people using digital platforms to spread negativity, hostility and hate. Sure, a handful of these may be kids, but for the most part these people are adults.  How do we break this cycle? As parents, how do we best support our children in becoming responsible digital citizens?  What role do, can and should schools play in this pressing and critical issue?

Digital citizenship is most frequently defined as “ the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use”.  The term is used in many contexts and may hold a variety of meanings to many, however the image below captures the nine elements most frequently associated with the term.

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In today’s world is being a “digital citizen” even setting the bar high enough?  It is difficult to argue with the fact that each of the nine elements are important.  Following guidelines to keep us safe and healthy, being responsible, becoming digitally “literate”- these are all essential and support the status quo. But are these nine elements the best we can aspire to for our students?

In his work, George Couros, talks a lot about the notion of Digital Leadership and “how we need to push our students to make a change in their world and highlight how social media can give them an opportunity that we never were given as students.  Just being “citizens” online is the average; kids already exist online.  We should be pushing for much more than this.”  

He defines Digital Leadership as…“Using the vast reach of technology (especially the use of social media) to improve the lives, well-being, and circumstances of others… http://sumo.ly/cpJu

We see examples of the youth of today harnessing the power of our digital world for good. In this post entitled, “Focusing on What Students Can Do”  George Couros says, “What I try to do is share stories of students who are making a difference right now! Like this teen who created the “Sit With Us” app, to help students find welcoming students to join during lunch. Or the 9 year old, “Little Miss Flint”, becoming a voice of a city and educating people about the water crisis in her city of Flint, Michigan.  Both of these young people are not waiting to become the leaders of tomorrow; they are grabbing these opportunities today. Our goal as educators should be that these stories are not the exception, but the norm. By raising the bar and our expectations for our students, we are more likely to get there than by simply telling them what they should not do.”

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There is much work to do. Work that must be done in collaboration. We must come together as families, as educators, as schools, and as communities to empower our learners to make good choices, daily in their digital world. This is our call to action.

Moving forward, how do help create a generation of not only digital citizens but “digital leaders”? How do we encourage, train and support today’s learners to rise above taking the power and reach of today’s digital world to slander, damage, embarrass, ostracize, hurt and bully others and instead use it as an opportunity to connect, share, celebrate, support, empower and learn from with one another?

In order to move our learners as digital citizens towards digital leaders we need to support them in moving from a passive stance to a place of action.  In moving towards a place of active digital leadership our youth need to develop the following skills and attitudes:

Autonomy

A digitally autonomous learner has a strong understanding of how the choices they make influence themselves and others, and are able to consider a variety of perspectives. They are self-determined learners that take responsibility for their own online decision making, independently.

Communicative, collaborative, critical, creative (4C) Mindset

The learner uses technology  regularly to communicate, and collaborate with people beyond their immediate environment in positive ways. Building these networked, learning communities builds communicative skills, shared connections and a global perspective.

In an online world the learner has continuous opportunities to actively use critical thinking skills including; conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating the information coming at them. The learner must employ these skills regularly and skillfully when making choices online.

Pushing past, the more passive role of a digital citizen as consumer, a digital creator regularly puts new content into the world and extends the creator’s own positive digital footprint.

Contemporary Lifelong Learning

In today’s dynamic, rapidly changing world our contemporary lifelong learner must be committed to the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed to be a dedicated digital citizen and leader.

Next Steps…

How do we best support learners in navigating this online world and working towards being not only digital citizens but digital leaders? Like with any new learning, children need practice.  They need modeling.  They need feedback.  They need guidance and support.  In Kayla Delzer’s blog post “Three Reasons Students Should Own Your Classroom Twitter & Instagram Accounts” she outlines how she uses  a “gradual release of responsibility to systematically turn the ‘social media reins” over to her grade 2 students.” We need more teachers like Kayla, modeling positive use of social media to celebrate and share the work of young students. We need classroom teachers having regular conversations about current events related to the topic of the online world.  We need more schools where the “THINK” poster outlining things to consider before you post online, is just as prolific as a poster related to reading strategies or math problem solving steps.

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I often hear pushback from teachers who say that schools have enough to do in teaching kids the content areas, literacy, numeracy etc. and that there is already too much on their plates.  The reality is that schools in fact,  are  in the business of teaching the whole child.  We historically and continuously support students in social, emotional, physical, and cognitive areas.   We teach pro-social skills, time management, citizenship, drug education, nutrition, human sexuality/reproduction, teamwork, mindfulness and the list goes on.  And in fact, information technology and the ethics and responsibility that it go along with it are nothing new to schools’ mandates. And while programs like MediaSmarts, Kids in the Know etc. may be valuable but they are not enough.  Where we need to see the shift is away from specific, canned programs that teach digital citizenship, internet safety, acceptable use etc. as skills in isolation in separate lessons out of context, and instead model real world, authentic digital leadership within the walls of our classrooms.  Many or most of our students own devices and the the reality is that these devices are a highly influential component of their world.  This issue isn’t going away.  This is our call to action. We must empower our learners with the skills, attitudes and direction necessary to lead in our digital world. We need to get to a point where we no longer need to use the world “digital”, before citizenship and leadership and it is merely engrained in the essence of all we do.

As classroom teachers, we have no choice but to dive into the world of connected learning.  For many, this may be uncomfortable, For many, this may be terrifying. New learning often is. But today’s reality is that technology and mobile devices are the equivalent to the pencil of days past. We must embrace opportunities for networked learning both for ourselves and our students.  When we choose to model the use of social media from the classroom for sharing and collaborating online, WITH our students starting at a young age, we normalize the positive, intended use of these platforms.  It becomes how we do business.  When we choose to give our learners the opportunity to blog or create digital portfolios at a young age and we model the responsibilities that come along with this, we help prepare them for the world that IS their present as well as their future.

These are unprecedented times.  These are times of change.  These are times for action. Moving forward, it is essential that we come together as a community of learners to best support and empower our digital learners.

“I Am Standing….”

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This year Winnipeg School Division is excited to have educational leader, and author of The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros once again working closely with our staff.  Now in its second year, one of the key pieces of this initiative involves extensive work with two Innovative Teaching and Learning Leaders (ITLLs) from each school. A guiding question in our work continues to be “How do we move from ‘pockets of innovation’ to a ‘culture of innovation’ within our schools?”(Couros, 2015)  For further information about the scope of the project visit these two previous posts.

One of the major components of the ITLL project has involved the participants developing a reflective blog and their own personal, digital portfolio, outlined here. As we embark into year two and continue this blogging journey, our ITLLs are now invited to write a targeted post reflecting on a new professional book added to the project this year, the inspiring and practical, Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. As a group, we are using this book to focus conversations on practical ways to embed innovative and creative practice in our classrooms.  

In my previous post, I discuss one of Dave Burgess’ provocative questions of “Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?” and how it was a meaningful exercise for me to give some thought to my own “stand out lessons”.  

In my mind these are the lessons or a sequence of lessons that are dear to my heart. They are the activities that keep me up at night in anticipation, that have me jumping out of bed in the morning to get to, and that have become refined works of art over the years.  As teachers, many of us have units, lessons, and activities we do with our students that we are the MOST proud of, that we know are highly effective and engage our students in superlative ways. An important skill for any educator is reflecting regularly on our practice, building on our strengths, recognizing our challenges and planning our next steps.  

The pirate’s question about “lessons we could sell tickets for” can offer us a lens to start or continue this good work. However, for some reflecting on their own practice through this narrow focus may be challenging. Some teachers’ strengths may not be articulated through exploration of a single lesson or a series of lessons, but instead in other ways such as, in the relationships they build with students or flexibility in meeting individual student needs.

Either way, this thinking and the inspiring work of both George Couros and Dave Burgess help us to frame the first reflective blog post assignment for the Innovative Teaching and Learning Leaders this year. The ITLLs are tasked with:

Describe and reflect upon a lesson or learning opportunity you have offered your students that “you could sell tickets for”.

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Thinking about your own learning through the ITLL initiative and the newest addition of Teach Like a Pirate, describe and reflect upon skills, strategies and practices you use to ensure student success, increase engagement/empowerment and  boost creativity in your own classroom or school.

As I first read TLAP this summer, I recall connecting to a number of the suggestions made and activities outlined. The costumes and dramatic pieces may not necessarily be in my wheelhouse but as a former Inquiry Support Teacher and Language Arts teacher for 16 years, the use of artifacts, music, images, technology, personalized learning and a number of the other “hooks” were things I could relate to place to in my own teaching.

And so I offer an example of my own series of learning experiences along a writing theme that I did with students that I can potentially consider through the lens of “a  lesson I could sell tickets for”.

One of my favourite learning sequences to teach in Language Arts is on descriptive writing.  In my mind I call this focus my “I am standing…” writing pieces.  

I have used a variation of these lessons over a span of many years and with students in grades 4-8. The intent of these lessons is for students  to practice describing something so that a picture is formed in their reader’s mind. It aims to capture an event, person, place or thing in such a way that it makes the writing more engaging and interesting by paying close attention to the details using all of the five senses.

I always begin by modeling for the students.  I choose one scene or location and I bring in a number of sensory artifacts into the classroom to replicate this scene.  The Lake as a setting is a good starting point for me.  This has varied over the years but may include:  a tub of cold water, sand, reeds, a tree branch, an evergreen or fresh rain scented candle, a fan, a life jacket, a paddle, a turtle shell, images, sound effects of water lapping or loons calling etc. As the students engage in this sensory experience of  “the lake” I ask them to record words, images and thoughts that came to mind, using the five senses.  This might be on chart paper, post it notes, or digitally on an App such as Popplet. At times they have used the List Group Label strategy to further extend this brainstorming.

Next, I share my own writing piece about the lake, or model this writing in front of them- I Do (Routman- Optimal Learning Model).  See here for an example.  I ask the students to look for evidence of each of the five senses being explored, examples of adjectives and adverbs being used, and the use of literary devices. There are many outcomes that can be reviewed within this form of writing.

We wrap up the day’s events by making a list of other possible settings or scenes we could explore in a similar way. Typically the students come up many…city centre, park, beach, ocean, farm, prairie field, blizzard, campfire, bakery, amusement park, circus, concert, forrest, sporting event, airport, mountains…to name a few.

For our next class, I set up more sensory stations along these themes.  I have images on most of the scenes in a file. I have collected a number of related artifacts along these scenes in a plastic tub I pull out each year and I gather others from nature.  I find sound effects online such as; crowds cheering, ocean waves, crickets, and a campfire crackling.  Others are conveniently on my Conair Sound Machine.  I bring in popcorn, marshmallows, baked goods or other tasty treats where applicable. While exploring the sensory stations, the students use this graphic organizer or a digital variation to record their observations using each of their five senses.

After, spending some time exploring the stations and recording our thoughts, we regroup as a class and choose one of the settings to do as a shared writing piece –We Do. Here is an example of a shared descriptive writing piece we wrote as a class on a Fall scene at the park.

The final class, the students choose their own scene or setting to write their own descriptive piece on –You Do.  They have the option of using the graphic organizer as a pre-writing sheet and we review the criteria for the descriptive piece of writing.  They work through all stages of the writing process.

The beautiful writing that comes out of this often amazes me! Some years, the students take their imagery filled, descriptive writing pieces a step further by completing watercolour paintings to go alongside, or they use an App such as Adobe Voice to visually represent their lovely language using images and their spoken words.

This series of lessons has traditionally produced some of the best writing my students do all year.  During these lessons they seem to thrive on the hands on, sensory nature of the work. The scaffolded, collaborative piece of working together before completing their own writing, ensures a high degree of success for all learners.

Effective Action

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In past posts I have outlined the extensive work George Couros is doing with us in Winnipeg School Divison.  On May 9th he returned to lead 2 inspiring sessions that encouraged all to reflect, share and be learners themselves in the area of innovation in education. He shared insight into The Innovator’s Mindset and how each of these characteristics can support positive change in driving learning in our schools.  He focused on the importance of relationships, making connections and learning together. He reminded us how innovative teachers and teaching can be transformative in not only engaging our students but empowering them as learners.  It was an inspirational time and a momentous occasion for WSD, as all 2500 educators came together over the course of the day.

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In the continued work George Couros is also doing with the WSD Innovative Teaching & Learning Leaders (ITLLs) from each school, the week also brought a new initiative.  Building on the collaborative reflective blog project they had started in March, this time the ITLL’s began their own own personal, online portfolio.  You can read more about that project on George Couros’ blog post, The Power of the Process. The ITLL’s embraced this new challenge and ran with it. You can see the beginnings of their work here on the WSD: Educational Blogs from Our Community site. Framed around the WSD Principles of Learning , these teachers began the important work of representing themselves as learners in their own personal learning portfolio, using this online forum. The ITLLs have used their blogging to explore topics such as;  what innovation looks like and could look like in their current reality as a teacher, the use of social media in classrooms and as a professional learning network, student as creator vs. consumer, barriers to innovative practice, flexible seating, personalized learning opportunities and the natural integration of technology into core subject areas to name a few. Each of their reflections is anchored in connections to the Principles of Learning.  The digital portfolio is meant to be a place of reflection and the intention if for it to serve as both a growth, and showcase portfolio down the road.

Why? Well, if we are going to ask our students to be reflective and put themselves in a learning stance, we need to model that thinking.  If we are going to one day encourage our students to share their work in their own online portfolio, in turn contributing to their positive digital footprint…we as educators, need to intimately understand that process first. We need to lead by example for the students we serve, for our colleagues and for our ourselves as we reflect and continuously push our own thinking and doing, moving forward to do the best we can for our learners.

Peter Drucker said, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action”. Change can only occur with action. Valuable and effective change can only prevail with thoughtful reflection on that action. For our ITLLs this is an opportunity to take that quiet reflection and give it a voice.

The WSD ITLLs have done an exemplary job throughout both the collaborative blog and portfolio building processes.  As their portfolios take shape, each page is as unique and creative as are each of them as individuals.  Of course they are dabbling with learning all the practical pieces and how to’s in Edublogs… how to change their themes, how to add pages, how to embed their Twitter feed, how to tag, categorize and insert media. But more importantly they are exploring how to best utilize this platform and their posts to celebrate successes, voice frustrations and challenges, pose questions, collaborate, share their voice and experience learning from a learners’ lens.

Their posts are open, honest and reflective and run a gamut of sentiments (vulnerability, humour, frustration, joy etc.) as they reflect on their own learning moving forward. Not only are the ITLLs expressive and resourceful in the types of topics they share about, but they are also original and creative in how they choose to share. Check out just a few of the many examples listed below:

  • Stefane Gautron uses a French song and a heartfelt exploration in his reflection entitled “My Love Affair with Twitter“.
  • Veronique Bedard uses a Videoscribe to explore the topic of: Innovation in Education
  • Dillon McMahon outlines the recent journey he has embarked on in the way of classroom design and environment.
  • Devon King uses a video introduction to welcome us to his portfolio site.
  • Leigh Brown explains how one tweet/idea can turn into an inspiring project with students.
  • Jeremy Midford takes on the challenge of blogging regularly to explore “The Struggle of Innovation”.

One thing that has become clear throughout this project and our work with George Couros is that there are many, many wonderful and innovative things worth celebrating currently happening in WSD.  As more and more educators share their own learning as well as that of their students, whether it be through professional learning opportunities such as this, or through Social Media including Twitter and this blog initiative, we can’t help but be inspired by the continued possibilities moving forward and learn from each other in a networked way.  The guiding question of this project, and our work with George has always been… “How do we move from pockets of innovation to a culture of innovation?” As our pockets continue to grow, one can only be hugely inspired by the limitless possibilities ahead, as we work together to improve learning for all students!