Creating Community One Class at a Time

Last Saturday morning I was reminded of what a joy it is be involved with an international group of people who are intent on learning similar things together.

We’re packing to move from Virginia to North Carolina on Thursday, so taking “study” breaks has been a much needed, much appreciated form of punctuation for days filled with odd sized boxes and packing tape. For about 90 minutes Saturday my “study” break consisted of a welcome webinar for a Moodle training course for teachers of English for speakers of other languages from all over the world.

Front page of IT4ALL's M4T Course for EVO2013

Front page of IT4ALL’s M4T Course for EVO2013

For six weeks now, I’ve been helping the incomparable Dr. Nellie Deutsch and her colleagues, Drs. Ludmilla Smirnova and Barbara Yaloff, and doctoral student/long-time teacher and fellow M4T (Moodle for Teachers) graduate, Judi Behrens facilitate a Moodle training course for TESOL folks in collaboration with the Electronic Village Online annual meet-up (EVO2013).

One of Nellie’s many projects in online education, IT4ALL  stands for Integrating Technology for Active Lifelong Learning, to be found the website IT4ALL provides courses primarily in training to use the open source online classroom delivery system, Moodle, an incredibly flexible learning management system that improves with every iteration.

IT4ALL also provides courses on teaching with the WizIQ social media/webinar teaching system (more on that later), on academic writing, vlogging, starting your own online business, learning English online and so on. This is not to mention the annual conferences that take on WizIQ twice a year: Nellie develops and facilitates Connecting Online Conferences offered every February and the Virtual Moodlemoot she coordinates every August. Past years are available for free viewing on WizIQ.

To give you a good idea of how unique WizIQ is in the webinar world — Nellie has a knack for finding some of the best resources for teachers out there — and how valuable it is as a platform for both teachers and learners (a significant number of the classes on the public stream are free), I’ve inserted one of WizIQ’s commercials for its system. It provides a great overview and guess who their example teacher is …

Nellie’s courses on IT4ALL are low cost or free (scholarships are available) and bring in students from all over the world, and they are always supported by materials lodged in various other online spaces, such Google documents, Mahara, YouTube, various blogs, and of course, the weekly webinar on WizIQ. (I’ll be blogging about Nellie’s activities as well as the various bits and bobs of technology she uses as I go along — one of my plans for this blog is to highlight the amazing projects of the people from whom I’ve been learning about online education.)

Like all of Nellie’s training courses we were from everywhere on the planet.  In M4TEVO2013 there were over one hundred registrants from 43 countries, spread out across the globe, from Southeast Asia and Australia to Eastern, Central and Northern Europe from the UK to such North and South American countries as Canada and Paraguay and lots of countries in between. Folks were from elementary, middle and high schools, language schools for adults, colleges and universities, and online teaching businesses, big and small. We all came together with the same focus: learning how to use Moodle to enhance our face to face teaching and/or extend our teaching/learning skills online, or both.

M4TEVO2013 was comprised of six weeks of active learning: teachers who were learners were expected to explore the Moodle framework for themselves albeit with guidance from our little band of facilitators. There was a curriculum, of course, that was built around basic Moodle elements, resources and activities. The goal was — as it always is with Nellie — for students to become proficient not only in using the basic elements of Moodle but also in learning their new Moodle skills well enough to teach others.

Active learning can be frustrating at first but is oh-so-rewarding later. Learners need to be able to ask questions of each other. They have to enjoy mucking in, working “hands on” with others. It is important to want to own the process and to expect to and enjoy having fun while learning. And the payoff is not only proficiency that does not fade away, but new friends, new colleagues, potential collaborators, and an expanded understanding of how much we all have in common in our classrooms and in our daily lives.

The learners in M4TEVO2013 dove into the materials, learned, shared, set up lessons, filmed tutorials of their skills to teach others, helped each other along, and an intrepid subset of our group appeared every Saturday morning — well it was Saturday morning for me: folks logged on from yesterday and tomorrow when you consider the spread of time zones — for the WizIQ webinars, many letting themselves be seen on video, heard on audio, and in the last class, last Saturday morning, animatedly chatting in the break-out rooms WizIQ provides. In my breakout room, after all the questions and answers and testimonials were finished, that meant playing on the Whiteboard together, uploading clapping hands, drawing happy faces, trying to sign our names or wish each other good fortune in the future in freehand, just enjoying ourselves like the friends we had all become. Not so long ago Nellie admitted that she is creating peace one teacher at a time. For all of us who have learned from her and collaborated with her, it feels like that, absolutely.

If you’re interested in Moodle, or WizIQ, or teaching online I recommend that you head over to YouTube and subscribe to Nellie’s channel. Here’s the link. And then wander over to WizIQ to take a look at what’s on offer. Nellie’s teacher’s page is here. Mine is here (I’m only an “egg” as you can see). And finally, to IT4ALL to explore the opportunities for learning there.  As for me, I’m headed back to the boxes and the packing tape! See you on the other side of the move.

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InformEd … on “Twenty Habits of Highly Effective Teachers”

Just to not miss a day, and because InformEd is one of my favorite blogs on teaching, I’m writing today under the category of “What Makes A Good Teacher” to tell you about a new post on the InformEd site called “Twenty Habits of Highly Effective Teachers.”

Submitted to that site by an anonymous guest blogger — the site is maintained by Andrianes Pinantoan for Open Colleges — the blog lists a slew of great habits that can help teachers express and maintain their enthusiasm, keep their flock of learners progressing through their courses, increase the sense of community among the learners, and be prepared for the unexpected.

Flexibility is one key to establishing a vibrant learning environment: One of the habits the blogger identifies is not being afraid to “switch the script.” That’s SO important. Onsite and online classes are often locations for controlled chaos, and that’s good. If a student heads off in a productive direction that wasn’t in the plan, but fits the purpose of the course, perhaps even better than what was planned, it’s important not to be so married to the script that you can’t shift gears when the flow encourages it. The blogger defines switching the script as reworking that tried and true syllabus, revamping your content by actively exploring new sources of information, new websites, new ideas on teaching, always being on the look-out for new ways to mix up the method of conveying the message.

Caring is another key:  The guest blogger advises faculty to “maintain frequent contact with students,” to listen to them and show respect, to provide learners with various ways to shine in the classroom. Sometimes though that’s a dance that takes more finesse than enthusiasm. It’s easy to become so present in the classroom that learners feel their goals, their process, their needs take a backseat to the teacher’s need to be center stage. In an online classroom, caring too much can become smothering. But as general advice, it’s well-taken.

I recommend heading over to InformEd to read it — click here to go there — and when you’re finished scroll down for some other great articles on the craft of teaching.

If you have a favorite site that provides advice to teachers and trainers, please post a comment. I confess I’m a little like Johnny Five in the Short Circuit movies, always on the look out for more input!


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What makes a good teacher?

Originally I was thinking that I would start featuring the blogs that I’m following, and I will get to that, but in the meantime I thought it might be a good idea to establish a new category called “What Makes a Good Teacher?”

My mother used to say that good teachers were born and not made. She thought I was probably headed for the classroom from very early on.

One room schoolhouse in Delaware

One room schoolhouse in Delaware

We used to live in a teeny tiny apartment not so far from the train tracks in Woodstock, Illinois. The house is on the street that Bill Murray, in the movie Groundhog Day, sees out the window of the B&B on the morning of the day that turns finally into February 3rd. If you look down the street in that scene you’ll see a van backing out of a driveway, and that van has to be within a door or two of our old house. So one day, in that apartment on the second floor of that house, when I was about two and a half or so, my mother came out of the kitchen and there I was with a small book in one hand and a toy wand in the other. All my dolls and all my stuffed animals were arranged in a couple of not-so-neat rows in between the sectional couch and the teeny tiny TV. Babbling away, I was gesturing with the wand towards what seemed to Ma to be an imaginary blackboard.

I don’t remember that, of course. But I do remember spending endless hours playing school in the house in the country we moved to when I was seven. I remember arranging and rearranging chairs in a row in the unfinished basement; bending over poster board with crayons, drawing up seating charts, and filling up grade charts with made up names, columns of assignments and lots of gold stars. I also remember teaching Chatty Cathy, Tiny Tears and Raggedy Ann and, apparently, a whole legion of unseen students given the length of the charts, all of whom — I imagined — were watching me dutifully as I chalked up the concrete basement walls with lessons.

I was always playing school. And in my mind at least, it was partly Maud Desmond’s fault.

I knew from second grade that I wanted to grow up to be Maud Desmond. She was the most amazing teacher I had growing up (and I had a few great teachers). When I met her, she was willowly and tall with white hair, an energetic lady in her 70s. It was 1958 and there were a lot of us in that second grade classroom. Maybe 40 kids or a bit more. She had retired from the Public School system where she’d spent pretty much her whole life teaching and had come to the Catholic elementary school to teach some more. I think in retirement she probably spent another 10 or 15 years teaching.

A classroom with 40+ kids didn’t put her off. She had strategies and they weren’t so far off the strategies that online teachers use today to turn near-Mooc size online classes into functioning community-building clusters of learners. One of the first things Maud did was to put us into groups. There were three or four of us in the “I already finished what else?” category, and then another group just on our tails, ranging down to the group of folks who needed help. I remember that she paired us up: the first group with the last group and so on, so that on a normal day, half the class was teaching the other half. Maud would stride through the room, keeping the peace, encouraging folk, stooping to comment, basically orchestrating the learning.

Maud also ran games that included everybody, versions of baseball where we all lined up on either side of the classroom. A correct answer was a home run, an almost right answer a base hit, and a good guess a ball. A really wrong answer was a strike. I remember being happy there was latitude in the answers because while I was a whiz at anything that had to do with language or reading, I most definitely was not a whiz at a lot of other stuff.

As I got older I talked to her a lot about teaching. She had started her career as a teenager with a high school diploma, teaching a one room school with kids from the first grade to the eighth. One room school teachers were at the mercy of the stresses of the agricultural season when all the boys and some of the girls would disappear to do farm work. Smart kids, talented kids, hard-working kids could get swallowed up by family businesses. Kids with needs might come and go from the curriculum depending on what was happening in the world. That couldn’t have been easy on teachers.

I think Maud finished her BA after her one room school house days and perhaps her MA after she was married and had raised her children. I’m sure she had no problem with transitioning from an ungraded schoolhouse to a graded classroom in a bigger school. She just seemed to be fearless, a bundle of positive energy and great ideas.

Knowing how to customize learning across a boisterous crowd of learners — that’s what was in evidence when I was in second grade with Maud. I never saw another teacher organize a class in such a way that students became teachers. I don’t remember such a wide variety of activities with any of my other teachers. So many classes, even with terrific teachers, were taught the way I taught my dolls when I was little, everybody sitting in rows, eyes straight forward, and either somebody wonderful or somebody not so wonderful chalking up the blackboard.

Maud Desmond was a great teacher. Whether born or made, she was flexible and caring, effective and engaging, and always willing to trust students to be teachers too: a good answer to what makes a great teacher.

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A first word

Today I’m starting a new post to mark my independence from my previous employment and begin exploring anew the personal learning network and the resources I’ve already gathered, and will continue to gather on higher education online.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I want to live in a world where education from cradle to grave is freely available for everybody at a variety of levels of complexity, with an emphasis on creativity and joy, within a social context if that’s what you need, or in heavenly solitude if that’s your style, with everybody finding their passions, learning and teaching and sharing and, mostly important contributing to the global community in a way that’s uplifting, productive, sustainable and so on and so on. I’m an unreconstructed idealist who is painfully aware that ideals and reality are often exceedingly far apart, but that one individual taking that first step forward can make a difference.

In future posts, I will review my favorite books on online education, the sites and mentors I have come into contact with, the successes of educational systems, the power of collaborative effort and the joy of mindless and mindful creativity whether or not you have an identifiable talent (like Van Gogh) or you’re pushing along in the primitive enthusiast category (like Grandma Moses).

We’ll see what happens next.

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