Tallest Building In Town: Serving Our Communities

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Our Lady of Help Church 4 by Herman Giethoorn
One warm summer day, I rode shot gun while my grandfather, then in his mid sixties espoused wisdom to me, his 11 year old grandson. We were driving toward Wallaceburg, which is a small town at the heart of the Great Lakes in southwestern Ontario, Canada, with the windows open in his mint Buick. The wind flooded into the car and through our hair as we both surveyed the trees and buildings that emerged above the green canvas of maple, oak, and ash leaves. My grandfather said to me, “Ben, do you know what the tallest building is in Wallaceburg?” And before I could respond, he answered his own question, “it’s the catholic church.” Sure enough, we both spotted the steeple to the catholic church well above the trees. I remember seeing the steeple, and noticing that at this moment in the 1980s, it wasn’t the tallest anymore but that a larger structure had grown up. My grandfather wanted the tallest structure to be the church, and it had been, but it wasn’t anymore.

I was recalling this memory recently, and thinking of how the tallest structure in town may be a reflection of what a community values. Might the addition or removal of ‘tallest’ structures reflect changes in society? In Wallaceburg during the early 1900s the tallest structure in town was Our Lady of Help Catholic Church. This certainly reflected the importance of the church’s role within the community and its importance. I wonder what the schools were like in this time period, how did they reflect the values in this community with a tall steeple presiding over the trees.

As the 1900s progressed, industry came to Wallaceburg including the brass and glass factories. The tower of glass factory eventually rose up, in prominence, importance and was higher than the church. Economic expansion changed the shape of the skyline, how they perceived themselves, and their town. Education did not lead to these changes, instead it reflected these changes and supported them. A secondary school was build and started to develop workers for these factories, tool and die shops, and related industries. The steeple from the church was still tall, but was reminder to its past prominence. The tall structures from the factories were reflected in the machine shop classrooms, summer jobs, and future ambitions of the students.

Wallaceburg is no longer a small but mighty industrial power. The glass factory has left, its tall tower dismantled. The tool and die factories have been reduced in size and number. The brass factory, which spawned locally famous musical groups, has gone. However the school still has the machine shops, retired glass blowers sell pottery and these relics, like the tall steeple remind us of the import role each played in years past. However, now as I drive toward Wallaceburg, now with my own son riding beside me, I point out the towers. I point out the steeple of the Catholic church. I show him where the glass factory used to rise above the canopy of maple, oak, and ash leaves. However, neither of us can miss the new towers in town. Cell towers showing the new prominence of communication, data, and connection. We check on wikipedia for information about the glass factory, using data from the cell towers, and I wonder how schools will adapt to reflect the new values that these towers reflect in this community.

Professional Learning Games: The Network That Plays Together Stays Together

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dee for three by romsrini, on Flickr

Each March there is a special time that captivates me. For a Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday I follow games from teams that I’ve never heard with players that I’ll never see again. There is something about the drama of a game. I’m not really into basketball, I prefer football, hockey, and baseball before basketball. However there is something that captivates me about this tournament.


What if a single elimination tournament came to professional learning? That is the idea behind the first ever educational Professional Learning Game (PLG) on Twitter. The person behind this is Rodd Lucier, you may know him as the Cleversheep, who also pioneered synchronous education professional chat on twitter with educhat well before the dozens or hundreds of current incarnations that live in twitter land today.

What is it?

The 31daygame is the first ever education Professional Learning Game. Where participants use twitter to “make a forced choice between the two competing ed’n themed videos. Which is the most compelling?” Over 31 days, the tournament will take place on twitter with the winner of each day moving on to the next round. (Here is the tournament bracket).

Untitled by Jess Rivera, on Flickr
Why it matters:

First, it is time to stop taking ourselves so seriously. The game context is interesting, and may keep the attention of people, who like me, enjoy tournaments, sport, and gaming. Are we going to have to make a choice? Yes. Will that hurt feelings? I hope not. I can take myself too seriously, especially online. This game is a way to bring playfulness into professional learning and do it in a social context. Lets adapt a saying from my childhood which was, ‘the family that plays together stays together’. What if we developed the principal that “the professional network that plays together stays together”?

The droids we're googling for by Stéfan, on Flickr

The second reason this matters is that it helps to uncover and expose us to more valuable content and ideas. Have you noticed that the internet is a huge place? There is too much to see and miss lots of this ‘stuff’? A professional learning game that forces us to choose between two items means that we need to consider both items. Ever tried to google search for ‘education videos’? I have, it is brutal. But if I play the 31 day game, I’ll be seeing 32 different piece of content (about something like education videos) that may be useful to me in my practice.

Her rash hand in evil hour by valkyrieh116, on Flickr
The professional learning game doesn’t just expose us to content, it helps find interesting content. Curation, which is often discussed by Jeff Jarvis, is something that the online education community needs. How do we cut through the clutter of google to find items of value? Must we rely on traditional educational curators, like publishers, researchers, and government organizations? In the information age, there is a greater need for curation. A professional learning game that harnesses the opinions of other educators may be a helpful curator and make online content more accessible to a wider audience of educators.

Finally, the most important thing about a professional learning game is that making a choice leads to reflection and professional understanding. The question, especially since the votes are in public, becomes what do I value and why? Am I willing to publicly commit to a choice, and what does that say about my professional identity? The criteria for making the choice is based on the purposefully ambiguous term: “compelling”. Since the criteria is not defined clearly externally, it is within each of us. As we vote, we uncover our own criteria that we value that is exposed when we make a choice.

So this March you will find me sitting on a couch with some popcorn kernels in the bottom of a bowl, and a laptop open beside me. I’ll be watching games involving 2 teams I’ve never seen before in the wee hours of the morning fueled by a half empty glass of Coke Zero and the adrenaline from the game. However, the laptop will be on the 31daygame. I’ll be watching education videos, making choices, reflecting, uncovering new learning and all while I’m playing a game.

Ears in the Water: Assessment for Improvement

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about the impact of assessments that are based on criteria versus percentiles and norms.  My thoughts about how all assessments don’t equally help students improve were kick started with smell of chlorine, beside the flutter boards at the local community pool.

The din of mothers with their babies and preschoolers splashing in the pool accent most Saturday mornings at the local pool.  Mothers and tots are led through actions and an awkward singing of such classics as ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ and ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’.  During these mornings you will find me sitting against a wall near the shallow end, with a towel on my lap, watching my four year old learning to swim.

Boris zwemlesThere are several parents, each living vicariously through the 5 little guys kicking, jumping, and splashing in front of us.   I know it is silly, but each time my son is asked to do a front glide or a back float with the teacher my attention builds and I mentally ‘will’ him to do well.  Each kick and turn leads me to hope that he will have improved since the last lesson. The parents act like a support group.  Red faces are evident when their child refuses to attempt something and each person has uttered the phrase, ‘it is weird, he loves the water when we are at free swim’.  After we all look away for the requisite moment, we murmur ‘it’s OK’ and ‘it gets better’ to the parent.  And when the teenage instructor handed my child a piece of paper that had water drops and smudges by the time it arrived on my lap, it only took a second to realize what it was.  My son had just received his first report card, although this was his mid-term swimming report.

The mid-term report card had about 20 different items listed and each was rated as complete, needs improvement, or incomplete.  I pretended not to care.  I tried not to look at it, you know it isn’t that big of deal.

What if the report had stated that Liam, my son, was in the 60th percentile of swimming proficiency for children his age?  How would I know how he could improve?  How would he know how to improve? I’m not sure the bell curve would have helped Liam.

Instead the report focused on specific skills that needed to be improved.  These were combined with what feedback the teacher gave to Liam during class to develop the criteria that will help him become a better swimmer.  It could have been said that he has a few areas to improve. But he was told he needed to improve on his back float and back glide. This was combined with what I’d overheard to be: Liam on your back float and glide, you need your ears in the water, your chin up, and your chest up.

Guess what?  The next week, for the first time this course when he tried the back float, his ears were in the water.  The teacher then just asked him to put his chin up and chest up.  Which he quickly remembered and did. As he splashed back to the side of the pool, his eyes searched for mine.  He pointed to his ears while his teeth were exposed with a large grin as water dripped down his face.

Bell CurveI was reminded that when reporting student achievement to parents, ranking isn’t as hopeful or productive as criteria.  With criteria we can improve, we can make a difference.  Clear criteria as someone learns starts a conversation. A conversation that that person has internally as they attempt to apply their learning and is followed up with people around them.

Liam knew what he needed to do to improve in the moment.  He wasn’t perfect, but he was improving by applying the criteria.  Is that a key principal for learning? Understanding the criteria that will help us improve?  If the teacher and the learner don’t know the criteria, how can we learn?

Thumbs up Jacob.Liam doesn’t care what percentile he is in, but his smile showed a deep self satisfaction with his improvement.  His smile was met with a thumbs up from me.
Ears in the water, check.



Photo Credits:

Boris zwemles by ianus, on Flickr

Bell Curve by vlasta2

Thumbs up Jacob. by thejesse