Curation – surviving info-glut

Kansas City Library: photo by Jonathan Moreau

There has been a lot written lately about curation in education, specifically digital curation. Here is a definition from Wikipedia

Digital curation is generally referred to the process of establishing and developing long term repositories of digital assets for current and future reference  by researchers, scientists, historians, and scholars.

I never saw myself as a curator, but realize that, in using a variety of digital tools, I am acting as one. Although I am not digitizing the content, I am making selections, collecting and organizing. Curation adds value. In an age of info-glut, finding and then being able to easily re-access web sites and articles that I have found useful is essential. With the social aspect (being able to tap into what others whom you respect are curating), my PLN (personal / professional learning network) multiplies the possibilities of finding just what I need.

I started with  social bookmarking sites, where I collected and tagged sites I thought would be useful later. I became part of a network, joining groups in Diigo and I now receive recommendations from other curators; these people are now part of my network. This brings me interesting links in subjects of my choice. I also share some of what I tag to appropriate groups. The advantage of tagging (attaching key words to the item) is that I can easily find articles later. For example, I have been using the key word “curation” and have easily found these items. In addition to tagging, you can add notations. Learn more about social bookmarking at the LEARN site.

I have recently been experimenting with other curation tools and thinking about ways they can be used by teachers for their own work and their work with students.

At a very basic level, teachers may curate websites on a specific topic and share them with their class via a website or document.This is important when you have specific sites you want your students to visit, when the goal is to access the information, not to learn how to find the best sites.

Many librarians curate on topics and publish them as LibGuides. You can find many at this site on a large variety of topics. The sites are vetted by librarians, so the student knows s/he can rely on the information there.

One tool I have been experimenting with is Scoop.it. When you “scoop” an item it is added to your topic. The resulting list looks somewhat like a newspaper. Here is a sample of a topic I have been curating: Visual Literacy. If you want to supply your students with a small number of articles, this is a nice option. Too many articles and it would be unwieldy. There can be a social media aspect to this tool as you can follow topics to get recommendations (and be followed). Here’s an interesting blog post about Scoop.it. It might be interesting to have high school students curate “magazines” on specific topics to share with the class. This could be a magazine which reflects different view points on a topic. Students should be able to justify why they chose specific articles for inclusion.

Another interesting tool is Pinterest. I don’t recommend it for teachers to use with their students as they can come across questionable material. However, it is a place where educators are “pinning” links on a variety of educational topics. You can follow everything a person pins, or just a specific topic.  One aspect that distinguishes Pinterest is that it is image based, not text based. I’ve only recently started pinning, but you can get an idea of what Pinterest looks like by viewing my boards. Teachers and and administrators are pinning on topics such as teaching in various subject areas, classroom management, educational technology and books to read. Here’s what one blogger shares about Pinterest.

Listen to what some curators say about curation


from Percolate on Vimeo.

There are many more tools, each fitting a specific purpose. I’ll be looking into this more. Are you a curator? Please share how you are using a curation tool. Is it for personal use? for use with your class? or with your colleagues? Is there a tool you love and why?

Oh, the Super Humanity!

Where does the tool end and the human begin?

As I and my fellow online teachers continue to try out new tools and strategies to engage our students, I am noticing a certain ironic, and exciting, trend.  The very thing that one would think would interfere with authentic meaningful  human relationships, that is, technology, is actually having the opposite effect. The tools are actually evolving so that they make our communication more human. I would even go as far as saying some are transforming what it means to be human.

Texting is an example of a tool at the opposite extreme of authentic meaningful communication. By necessity of brevity, texting immediately jettisons most of the human touch, even with all those cute abbreviations.  😉  See?  Not human. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against texting!  I text my own kids all the time! 🙂

But then we have wonderful tools like googledocs! The first time I experienced this enhanced human-ness was when I tried googledocs for the first time with my students.  Rather than go into all the details of the specific activity, I will just say that the students were all editing a single document, and they could all see what each other was typing as they were typing it. Each person’s addition to the document was accompanied by a little callout with their name in it. That and the fact that we all saw the same thing in real time, made us all seem more flesh-and-blood to each other, myself included.  It was different than what we see in the chat box of the Zenlive classroom, even though that too is live and identifies each individual. I’m not sure why it felt so different; perhaps because it was a new place for us to gather and it just looked different.

Next time I noticed it was when our online history teacher and edtech guru, Paul Rombough, showed us a video of a live Prezi activity that his students had done.  What we, and the students, saw was little Rocky-and-Bullwinkle type avatars scrambling all over a map of Quebec:Each one of those little avatars had the name of a student attached to it, so once again, there was a human layering happening by virtue of the tool that was being used. In fact this one went two steps further than googledocs, because each student was given an actual human form and a location to add to their identity.

These examples had a huge impact on me. I found that instead of feeling that I had to go above and beyond to make sure I was getting through to my kids, and making them “see” me and their peers, the tool was doing that for me. Of course it was not only because of the callouts or avatars, but because of the collaborative nature of the task they were working on.

The Super-humanity of the twitter chat

Now I have experienced a tool that makes it possible for us to “see” each other in ways that simply would not be possible without it.

I recently attended my first twitter chat. This simply means that I and many others went onto twitter at a pre-determined  time, searched for a pre-determined hashtag, and for the next hour, tweeted with that same hashtag.  It’s kind of like being on a special twitter channel. There are many chats like this that happen on a weekly basis, like edchat, or mathchat, but the one that I finally decided to join in on was the flipped class chat, the hashtag for which is #flipclass.

I shall try to describe this experience.  Imagine yourself having five conversations at the same time, each one of them fascinating. Then add the fact that each of those 5 people you’re talking to is someone highly innovative, respected, or just plain famous. Now add another dimension – on top of that, as you carry on these multiple conversations with these amazing people, other amazing people that you didn’t even know were there respond to things you are saying and start even more conversations with you. And instead of 5, it’s now more like 10. It simply could never happen in one room, or without a tool like twitter. Even with twitter, it’s impossible to keep up all of the time, so the entire thing is recorded and posted for everyone to see the day after. And when I say see, I really mean it. Have a look at this.

With this tool, we can see not only what was said, but also directionality, intensity, and who the movers and shakers were. It seems to me that this tool, and the chat which it describes, make it possible for us to process more information more quickly, and in new ways. Maybe it even makes us superhuman? But then here’s another irony – it will take a super human to keep up with all these new tools that pop up every day! And just when there are fewer and fewer phone booths around…..

Reflective practice as professional development

Art (c) Todd Berman

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a group of educators, among them a pair of Cycle One teachers from the francophone sector. We got to talking about a series of learning and evaluation situations that we had been asked to review and possibly work on. One of the required components of the LESs was the “phase d’objectivation” which I’m guessing is the equivalent of a reflection phase in English (although the definition specifically deals with making the abstract concrete). Every LES designed had to have a reflective activity built into it.

“You know,” one of the teachers said to me quietly over coffee, “nobody actually does that”.

“You mean reflect with their students at the end of an LES” I asked, sort of puzzled.

“Yes, exactly” she replied. “There just isn’t the time. And the kids don’t really understand what it is. Everyone just wants to move on.”

The other teacher nodded in agreement. And there you had it: reflection swept neatly under the rug with all the other things we’re supposed to do as educators but don’t quite get there…

This exchange has stayed with me. Far be it from me to judge individual teachers. We all live with our own shifting classroom and school realities and in this day and age, there is no room for judgement. The teachers I spoke with surely are not the only ones who feel this way about the reflection phase of an LES. They were speaking with the conviction of those who feel the disconnect between that which they should do and that which actually happens, and who don’t see any way around it except to nod and smile. We were talking about reflection, but it could have been one of any number of sound pedagogical approaches, such as critical literacy or goal setting or authentic assessment.

This is where things get a little “Choose your own adventure”. On the one hand, I want to write about how teachers might come to embrace a proven approach (or fail to do so) and on the other hand, I want to show those two teachers I spoke with and all the others who don’t reflect with their students how they might begin in Cycle One and what it might look like. I’m going to do both eventually, but this post is about reflection for teachers.

“But I would not feel so all alone…”

Reflection is for everyone. In my work with dancers who are also dance teachers with no formal background in education, I have seen firsthand the power of reflection on action, and the subsequent new learning that emerges from it. We use social media mostly, but also meet face to face every session, which is every six weeks. Sometimes I organize the discussion by giving it a framework and other times I just facilitate and make links between ideas. I can see this process taking place in a school. What I’m trying to say is this: teachers who believe that reflecting with their students is a waste of time have probably not experienced the power of reflection in their own practice, in spite of its pervasiveness in education literature.

As a professional, actively reflecting on one’s work is called ‘reflective practice‘, a term popularized by Donald Schön‘s work some decades ago and increasingly relevant to practitioners today. Schön, drawing upon Dewey, defined reflective practice as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”. Duh, right? His basic premise, and that of other scholars who took up the reflective practice baton, is that being able to reflect on professional actions ultimately leads to improvements on these actions. A continuous cycle of learning and, eventually, innovation. Teachers, like their students, can benefit from reflecting on what they do, using whatever lens matters to them most, and following a scaffolded process of action-reflection-action. This article from Educational Leadership expands on this idea of reflective practice as a means of professional development. With a constantly shifting political landscape, and a changing and increasingly diverse population to contend with, it makes sense that the most effective professional development initiatives would be those in which the teachers themselves would play the most active decision-making role.

Just to be clear, reflective practice is not a fluffy “let’s sit down and talk about our feelings” kind of process. It is rigorous in that it takes on the thorny issues of practice in the field and forces participants to examine their actions, beliefs and patterns. It asks participants to identify precisely those areas that make them uncomfortable, the ones in which they feel a lack or a conflict. I can hear some of you now: “Yes, but what if teachers don’t choose the RIGHT thing on which to focus??” Ah, and now we come to the crux of the matter.

Trust and Time

I believe that the reasons reflective practice is not yet the dominant professional development paradigm for teachers can be summed up in two words: trust and time. On the one hand, there is a legacy of paternalism and hierarchy still at work with regards to professional learning initiatives. Teachers are given choices, yes, but these choices are often limited to traditional classroom-style ways of learning. What is missing is trust – trust that teachers will make the right decisions for their practice and trust that they will follow through with self-driven modes of learning such as reflective practice or action research. Luckily, in Quebec there have long been initiatives like the PDIG grants and other grants are available today. Unfortunately, these are not the norm for all practitioners and writing them yearly is no mean feat. Ideally, everyone should have regular and ready access to such approaches (facilitated or not) and a professional portfolio model could be used to provide an accountability framework for teachers engaged in self-driven modes of professional learning.

The thing about these pesky self-driven, iterative, process-based forms of professional development is that they take time. Gobs and gobs of it. Thankfully, the experimentation and active learning required of teachers actually take place in the classroom, on the job. Still, reflective practice requires a consistent time commitment and preferably a community of peers with whom to share ideas and insights. Currently, only a skilled and creative administrator committed to carving out more time for teachers can find the necessary resources to do so.

What can you do?

If you want to engage in reflective practice, find a community. Professional communities online abound. LEARN has communities you can join, organized by Subject Area or interest (animation, portfolio). If going online is not your thing, look in your school or approach fellow teachers you like and trust. If you are a principal, you can engage your whole staff in process-based professional development, with the help of an outside facilitator, or on your own.

Perhaps you are engaged in reflective practice and have a community of peers. If so, I would love to hear about it.

For more on reflective practice

Osterman, K. F., & Kottkamp, R. B. (1993). Rethinking Professional DevelopmentReflective practice for educators: improving schooling through professional development. Newbury Park, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2000). Getting into the Habit of ReflectionEducational Leadership57 (7). Retrieved March 10, 2012, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr00/vol57/num07/Getting-into-the-Habit-of-Reflection.aspx

Finding Time for Professional Development – BetterTeacher.org

Stephie’s professional practice course – A sample reflective blog from a pre-service teacher.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the Reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. (available from on-line booksellers)

History, reality…. and parties

There is an underlying subtext that subversively sneaks in and out of my grade 10 history course this year.  It’s called reality.  Sometimes we call it the present day, sometimes it is just called news.  The textbooks we use and the Quebec programs call it the Contemporary Period (though more often than not that ends in the 1980s).  And occasionally a student will refer to it indirectly, without knowing, when she says, “Ah, I get it now.  That actually makes sense to me!”

I started the year off with one specific reality-related objective in mind:  I wanted my course to be relevant to a 16 year old, someone not quite in CEGEP but not quite out of high school either, someone in education/life limbo.  At that age many students are more concerned with their own personal world dawning, than with a fading sunset painted over a strategic cliff hundreds of years before they were born.  Based on a few conversations with them and with my own son, I surmised that one thing (well one other thing!) on a lot of their minds was how to search for their very first job.  And so, after having been inspired by a quirky little video, the first ray of reality-light in our classroom was that of the electronic ePortfolio.

The idea was simple:  at the end of the year my students would have a long list of things they actually “made” to show off to prospective employers.  Not simply a resume, but an interactive collection of projects demonstrating a wide range of academic, social and technical skills and knowledge.  There are, of course, several ways of looking at an ePortfolio: as a showcase, mostly for parents and other students to see;  and as a reflective space, where students set goals, try things, and work out on their own how to improve upon themselves.  While all those functions of an ePortfolio were important to me, and indeed are part of our in-class practice, my hopes to our  online spaces as CVs necessitated two things:  one that their ePortfolios were public and thus exposed to real-world risks and responsibilities, and the other that their ePortfolios allowed for an extremely wide range of technology to be used.  After considering various options, and trying a few in class, we settled on using WordPress.com, a free online service with limited advertisements (actually none so far to date) and one that allows for a variety of uses by means of plugins and embed shortcodes.  Essentially a blogging platform, WordPress is also a website, a content management system, and a portal.  It also has the ability to act as a social network and to connect to other social networks, a way to let even more of “their world” to shine in.  So, where are we now?  Well, so far we have used the sites to blog on homework experiences, as a platform for writing for a real audience, and slowly but surely as a way to collect together our various experiments in using technology in a classroom setting.

And… a second objective for the year was just that, to incorporate technology.  I teach in an online environment (read more on that here) so immediately we had to master several skills in order to communicate, in order to share work and collaborate on projects, in order simply to read together and learn.  It sounds obvious — you imagine uploading and downloading and chatting — but every time any creative energy seeped into the room, we found ourselves bending and breaking the tools we had on hand.  Then like anyone would, we looked around to see what else we could use.

As part of our process, we wanted to build collections of resources, brainstorm characters and characteristics, map out and share intersecting trade routes, trace timelines, and sketch seigneuries.  For most of those tasks Google Docs and Google Maps allowed us to work together  with little restrictions.   Google Earth allowed us to tour the world together, and Youtube and Discovery Video offered seemingly endless windows onto the past.  But students these days don’t just take in information.  They know how to share it, expand upon it, work and play together in online building and gaming and socializing environments.  Nothing seemed natural, nor more naturally boring, about just watching a video together and taking notes.  We needed a way to meet up and interact.

Previously we had worked on various projects in Prezi, an online presentation tool that allows for virtually infinite zooming from one slide to another.  Then we discovered we could work “together” in the Prezi environment.  We could meet there, collect and classify objects together, all in real time.  We could work simultaneously on the same large territorial map, meeting one day over Gaspe to view a student’s work.  In the form of little avatars, we could bunch together inside a concept map of the early British colonial government, to exchange ideas on the first legislative assembly, divide up and connect the dots around who actually votes and doesn’t.  Students would virtually bump into each other, and suddenly learning was personal again, and fun.  It wasn’t the reality of a physical field trip, but it was their reality, the way they were used to socializing and living their lives.  For them it was real.

But given all that, what really made me think of reality as a topic for this blog entry was not my students’ job needs, nor their process, nor the technologies of today.  It came to me during a final culminating task for the economic development theme, where they each had to put together a feature page in a newspaper.  The challenge was to use the local newspaper format to convince (or to dissuade!) a Chinese investor to set up a large-scale factory in a region in Quebec, and to draw not only on our history, but also on China’s, to draw comparisons.  As it happened, Steven Harper was in China at the time negotiating a trade agreement, China was in the news because of Tibet protests, and Apple factories in China were also being investigated for working conditions.  Suddenly my students were seeing history being played out in their world and in terms they were familiar with:  the Internet, Twitter, technology (but this time the kinds they owned and used).  Current issues such as the environment, deforestation, First Nations living conditions and the Plan Nord all came into play.  And real Chinese companies that had already invested in Canada elsewhere came under their scrutiny.

The students looked back on the past through the lens of the present, not from a fabricated or imagined present created, but rather from one that actually impacted on their lives.  They finally said, “I get it”, because they were able to first get it “now”, and then make connections.  And this wasn’t the only example that surfaced in our class this year.   We negotiated a homework schedule as the students in Quebec began their strike.   We learned about divisions in East Canada’s political system in the 1800s, just as a new political party was forming in Quebec.  And of course, we continued to set up and expand upon our own blog-styled ePortfolios, while privacy issues in Google and Facebook were evolving and becoming a concern, and while copyright and copyleft rights were finally on the table and big news.

Do they really get it, the now I mean, what is happening in the world today?  I don’t know for sure.   But what I do know is my students suddenly seem to get the history when their experiences, their technology and their news enters into the equation.  They suddenly see that history happened in someone else’s present, and that that present was not so different from their own.  They want to explore more, learn more, when that exploration includes their world.  That is, until another reality hits home and it hits home hard:  provincial exams.  You see, being in secondary 4, at the end of the year my students must sit down and demonstrate a prescribed set of “intellectual operations“,  use a specific “progression of learning” that is so embedded in the past and completely over-saturated with facts and examples from times they don’t know, well, suddenly I actually have to stop and teach it all to make sure they get it in time, and any chance of voluntary exploration on their own part just stops.  There is precious little time to look beyond and wander.  They are no longer historians in the making, they are students again.   Oh, we do practise useful skills:  We learn to write essays in an exam context, how to read questions, how to compare facts and to find answers.  But more to the point, we learn to recite all there is to know about our local and national culture, as if that is all there is to know.  Oh, don’t make any mistake about it, the exam is a powerful incentive to learn, now that my students all know that 50 percent of their grade hangs in the balance.  Reality hurts too.  Still, I can’t help but wonder how this reality will in any way be part of theirs when they finally leave limbo and begin to climb out and into their lives.

I will end with a real quote from my real-life 15 year old son when I asked him the other day, “Why do you think you are studying history anyway?”  He actually responded, in all seriousness, and with pride in his voice for having figured it out: “Well, then when you are at parties you can impress people, and in that way you can get a better job.”  He had a point I supposed.  What do you think?