Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bricks/Mortar to Clicks/Cloud

I believe in the power of a classroom. I have started many 'philosophy of education' pieces with that phrase. Until the summer of 2013, that classroom would be the traditional space with a white board, demo table, student desks, and lab stations. Now, my new classroom will include a flipped approach with multiple sets of podcast lessons and video conferencing with a screen share of my writing tablet and uploading student structures via iPads and drawing apps.

It has been a very steep, intense learning curve for me to get to this point. I have been told that snowboarding has a much steeper learning curve than skiing, so I like to think of all the detours and struggles I have encountered in the last four months much like the time a novice snowboarder spends sitting on the slopes.
This OChemPrep endeavor started in the spring with a visit to my accountant. I told her that I wanted to start a company to help students get ready for organic chemistry in college. She said she could file the incorporation papers, and she also wrote down the name of a client who might be able to help me with website development.  It was not more than one minute later when that client, my ‘producer,' walked into her office. I gave him my OChemPrep ‘elevator pitch,’ he took the hook, and I was the owner of an edtech start-up!

I have learned so much in such a short amount of time that I sometimes feel like a first-year teacher again. Maybe with a bit more control over my life, but like then I am awestruck by those who seem to know so much more than I do. 

What have I learned?
·        Podcasting—Wow, it takes FAR longer than I ever expected to produce good educational videos.  From planning to recording (and re-recording) to editing and rendering and then compiling a list of all the links in a cloud-shared document, this process required many days, and some nights.

·        Marketing--the most time-consuming, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding part of the project. I have a healthy respect for anyone starting a new business. The effort paid off and I cheered with each and every ding from the Gmail app as a student registered for a summer 'boot camp' class.

·        Tweeting--Oh, the world of educational twitter!! The #satchat and #tlap chats with tweets flying past faster than one could read. (It took me weeks of lurking before I knew what #tlap stood for--you teaching pirates out there know who you are!!) This was the most amazing (and fun) professional development tool ever.
So now, having worked all summer to build a website, a blog, a forum with a set of interactive games, a video textbook for organic chemistry prep and a PLN on twitter, I am ready to take the step out of my bricks-and-mortar classroom into my cloud-based one.  I just read a post by Jake Clapp of Global Online Academy, and I will quote:  “Teaching and learning in the online environment demands creative approaches to instruction, assessment, community building, and formative feedback.”  So maybe there is a reason why I have felt like a first-year teacher again.
So into the virtual classroom I go, hoping it’s a steep curve up, but a great ride down.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The GLR: The Gypsy Caravan of Michigan Runners

I struggled with finding the correct metaphor for the Great Lakes Relay (the GLR).  There are a few other possibilities of itinerant events: 
  • a wagon train (we do carry our own food and some carry shelter, but we don't circle the wagons in the evening for protection)
  • a traveling circus (yes, there are performances, and a three-ring atmosphere at times, but there are few, if any, spectators.)
I settled on the Gypsy Caravan, especially after reading some of the descriptions of the Romani/Roma people (the politically correct name for “Gypsies”).   From a website devoted to understanding the Roma: “In travelling communities extended families travel together and share resting sites. Regardless of type of dwelling, the extended family is the unit within which resources are shared, work is organized, and food is prepared and shared.”  And from a Romani Proverb:  “You cannot walk straight when the road bends.” 
So with that preamble I hope to illustrate why so many of Michigan runners spend the third weekend of July, year after year, running and racing in heat, bugs, and storms on questionable trails and dirt roads with just a sheet of paper full of directions in our hands to tag the next runner on our team. 

The Gingerbread Girls, end of day 2, Grayling, MI, 2013
For the all but one of the last ten years, I have participated in the Great Lakes Relay. I try to describe the event to people, especially non-runners, with very mixed results. 
  • We run from one end of Michigan to the other with 9 other people and 3 cars in 3 days to cover over 275 miles of roads and trails
  • We get up at 4 am every day to make it to the start at 6 am
  • We don’t have organized places for bodily functions to occur
  • We compete with other teams, but at the same time cheer them on as they finish, especially after the tough legs
  • We sometimes get lost in the woods (but hopefully not for long, but sometimes for a LONG time)
  • We are sore and tired and pushed to the limit of endurance
  • We do this every year and vow at the end of the event to come back next year and run better
In my long running career (almost 40 years at this point), there are few experiences that come close to the GLR in terms of reward.  Yes, I remember my first marathon in 1982, and my marathon PR at age 44, and running on my cross country teams in high school and college, and coaching a few special cross country teams, but there is nothing that compares to the feeling of community that surrounds the GLR.  Each year’s team has a different chemistry (some better than others—2013 was one of the best), and the Gypsy Caravan of the GLR has the feeling of a small town on wheels. 

There are co-mayors (Bob and Nick) and sheriffs (Punch, Sue, Jackie and the rest of the race officials) and other characters that give rise to legends, stories, and myths associated with the GLR.  (Each group has its own ‘characters,’ and many of these tales start to overlap as the web of teammates grows from year-to-year.)

There is a set of rules and customs associated “The Relay.” Some of these rules are written down:
Other rules are not written down:  Faster teams should not run concurrent, but should cheer on those concurrent runners as they fly past on the later legs of relay.  (‘Concurrent’ is a method for teams to finish before nightfall, by breaking the relay chain, and running the legs at the same time as their teammates, and adding the splits together to find a finish time.)

Another feature of the GLR is the lack of service on our phones.  It is a wonderful thing to be disconnected from the “real” world as our little town with its 700 participants, and 200 vehicles, moves through the north woods of Michigan.  It is a culture shock to wake up on Monday morning after the GLR and realize that the weekend is over and we have bathrooms, clean beds, and an alarm that rings at a reasonable time.
So why is this event so special? 
  • The amazing sights:  the woods and fog in the morning, a view from the top of a hill on a nasty trail, the Empire beach.
  • The unique experiences:  having a tank flying past you as you run through the sand of Camp Grayling on the “Graveyard,” a run through a lightning storm on the top of a sandy hill, the final sprint to the end of the last miles of the weekend on those oh-so-tired legs.
  • The wonderful people:  teammates who inspire you to run better than you think possible, folks who understand that running is not an odd obsession, and dedicated athletes of all shapes and sizes, young and old.
These are all pieces that make the event extraordinary.

It will be 360 days until the next GLR. 
I am not sure what will happen to “The Gingerbread Girls” in those days, but I hope we can stay together in some form. 
I DO know that I have seen many a straight road, and many a bent road over this past weekend, and I intend to come back next year to follow them yet again.

Relay hand-off, 2007

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Teacher's View from the Fourth of July

It may not exactly be mid-summer (and in Scandinavia that was actually June 21), but July Fourth seems to be the day that I finally say good-bye to last year's classes and start looking forward to next year's.

Saying good-bye. This is sometimes the hardest part of teaching. The beauty of small (<20) and sometimes very small (<10!) class sizes is that each class becomes a small community of its own. In fact, many of my classes have referred to themselves as a family, like the 'Block 4 Families' that have coalesced these past two years. Teaching and learning in such a tight group is an amazing experience for all of us. This year on the last day of class, the last block of the day, my very small block 4 did not want to disband. We knew that the moment the first student left the class, the magic would be gone. We stood in a circle and waited...

Yes, someone finally had to leave, but no one wanted to be the first. Block 4 was a blessing.

(As with so many other Block X Families over the years, but this year even more so.)

Looking forward. The summer emails just went out to my future students. The teaching wheel starts rolling. Sometimes I look at those people who do not have school-related jobs and wonder what it would be like to have their year-round schedule. They can take vacations in September (!) and they can even have free weekends in the fall (I'm a cross country coach), but will they ever experience that excited, first-day-of-school (or practice) feeling that comes with teaching and coaching?

Other post-7/4 questions start to rattle around in my brain. Will my next year's classes/team learn to work together and with me? Will I find new ways to present chemistry to make the classroom better for my students and to keep teaching interesting? Which of my students/athletes will attain the badge of legend? ("Legends" are those characters who for better or worse, usually worse, become part of my many stories of teaching.) Which block, if any, will transform into a Block 4?

So tonight we watch the fireworks over a lake in northern Michigan. As far away from my classroom in time and spirit as I will be this summer. But tomorrow starts the slide toward the new school year. The cycle begins again.