What I learned on my summer vacation…

Tomorrow at 8 am the 2013-2014 school year will begin officially as I gather with the faculty and staff in the Natick High School cafeteria for the “welcome back” coffee and a morning of district kick-off meetings. Sitting here readying materials for the start of school I am constantly reflecting on my summer. Tomorrow some friends will share stories of their adventures in Africa or Europe, traveling the country or having experiences that I too might have had BK (before kids, for those that are confused), and even though I will ooh and aah over their stories with slight pangs of jealousy (as much as I love an edcamp, it is not quite as amazing as an African safari!), I will carry my truth with honor – I had an incredible summer of learning.

This summer I learned to “Teach Like a Pirate,” or at least I am now ready to teach like a pirate and am a certified #swashbuckler according to Dave Burgess. Between reading the book, participating in #tlap chats and having discussions with colleagues at edcamps and BLC, I am filled with ideas and inspiration to make my classroom an environment where children are inspired to learn. Not so sure that kids will want to buy tickets, but they will be engaged!  This weekend I have been focused on rapport and how I will begin my year. As Dave so wisely describes in his book, creating a community kids want to be a part of starts in the first three days of school. Students will absolutely feel welcomed to our learning extravaganza hosted by me!  Not sure yet if I am going to be able to pull-off the playdoh, but I do have my desks (which I have no choice but to deal with this year) covered with whiteboard paper. I am thinking about replacing playdoh with drawing. It is a perfect tie-in to my next summer learning item…

This summer I learned the power of sketchnotes. Thanks to Brad Ovenell-Carter, his incredible artistry at BLC, and his encouragement, I have a new way of taking notes that benefit me, and will hopefully benefit my students as well. Combining listening and critical thinking skills, tapping on their creativity and hopefully maintaining their attention, I am confident students will learn to process the important messages of class and engage more deeply in the material.  My students won’t have the opportunity to use Paper or the iPad in my classroom, but I will have them sketch their notes on paper and we will take pictures and post them in their digital portfolios.

This summer I learned the power of design thinking, Notosh style with a good question, three people, some paper and a couple of sharpies. Combining the incredible experience I had in Eleanor Duckworth’s course and her “tell me more” strategy to generate student thinking and exploration, the method Ewan Macintosh and Tom Barrett demonstrated resonated greatly with me. I have long felt that the reason curriculum in many classrooms is boring and the antithesis of learning is not due to the lack of technology, but the lack of thinking present. In an effort to “support and scaffold,” many learning opportunities strip away the opportunity to grapple with topics and generate ideas and questions. We need to coach kids to push their understanding, not deliver it to them in “flipped videos” or masterfully created Haiku decks or Prezis.  My students will be forced to struggle with their thinking this year, started with a design thinking exercise in which students will contemplate their ideal learning environment. I am not sure how it will all work, but if I am unwilling to push my comfort zone, how can I expect students to do the same?

This summer wasn’t all about learning new things, but also about relearning/reaffirming ideas that I have held for a while. This summer I was reminded that if I ever have a “redo” I want to become a library and information specialist. I have the pleasure of working in a building with an incredible library specialist, and throughout the summer I learned and collaborated with several others. Without fail the coolest people at any conference I have been to over the past couple of years have been librarians.  In the age of endless vats of information, librarians understand that the game is not to try to cram this information into kids’ heads, but rather to guide students how to find the best information in the most efficient manner and then inspire them to do something meaningful with the information. Thank you to Amy Bloom, Tara MacDonald, Laura D’Elia, Shannon Miller, Michelle Luhtala, Joyce Valenza, Jenny Lussier, Michelle Gohagon and the many other amazing librarians who inspire me daily.

This summer I reaffirmed that being a connected educator is no longer a choice for educators today, it is a necessity. I simply do not believe that educators that refuse to connect beyond the walls of the school building can provide students with a full learning opportunity. Perhaps I am a being presumptuous, or overly aggressive about the issue, but I don’t believe I am. In the course of the summer I learned more about education and my practice than I ever did in a grad class or school meeting.  Refusal to connect is negligent and there is no defense. I am a different educator because of the connections I have made with other educators. Twitter is a lifeline for me now. In just a few minutes I can have my mind blown by ideas and resources shared by educators around the world. For people that prefer to connect in person, find people! Every month there are free learning opportunities for educators. There are many fantastic paid conferences, but they are cost prohibitive for many – so try one of the many free Edcamps, Playdates, TeachMeets. Not one in your area? Organize one! If you organize it, people will come!

And with that, I must disconnect and focus on some of the monotony of school start, including district mandated online trainings, class lists, and other boring stuff that I need to do now before the excitement of the school year takes over. I am looking forward to tomorrow morning, seeing faces I have not seen since June, and hearing about their wonderful adventures of the summer.  I have a friend who spent his summer working at an orphanage in Africa, then traveling and vacationing in Africa with his fiancee. My adventures are certainly not as glamorous as this, but I am confident I am just as passionate about mine.  Counting down to the return of students on Wednesday, I am filled with the lessons of the summer and energized to get rolling this year!