Sunday, June 1, 2014

Understanding How Making Connections Is A Key Concept In Education...and Life.

Making connections.  As I enter the final school week of my 25th year in education, I am realizing how essential the ability to make connections is to not only the learning process but to a person's ability to be successful and flexible in the world beyond k-12 education.

Connecting Knowledge: 
The old joke is that teachers have eyes in the back of their heads.    One of the members of my Professional Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter, @JeffCharbonneau , shared out that he has "teacher eyes" that allow him to see learning opportunities in everything he sees.  I love that image, because it really expresses how as a teacher, I have always seen the world around me.  Here is an example of how I use my teacher eyes.  A few weeks ago, I had a chance to work with one of our Kindergarten teachers on brainstorming for a week long science based unit I wanted co-teach with her.  I started by asking her what topics she will be working on in her class during that time- Insects, spring and weather. My teacher eyes see a number of possible connections here. Insect folklore related to weather, using insects as a predictor of spring, looking at how insects spend the winter, reading and writing a poem about insects and spring, doing insect math.... I think you get the idea.  Our students live in a world that is connected - not divided into math time, science time, English time.  We have to make sure that they learn in a connected classroom too.

My colleague Lauren-Monwar Jones and I spent time talking through how we see connections across content areas and developed some tools that we hope will be helpful to other teachers as they look at the world through their "teachers eyes".  Our "Seeing Connections" Resource Page
  • Apples To Apples Model: In the children's game Apple to Apples, a topic card is placed in the middle of the table and all game players must choose an object card in their hand and come up with an explanation for how it is like the topic.   In Apple To Apples Unit planning, start with a learning standard or skill and then use your teacher eyes to see different content areas might connect to it.
  • Finding Common Theme Model : The real world context for English and math skill application can often be found in science and social studies.
  • Planning around literature or info text: A piece of literature or informational text can be the starting point for seeing connections to other content areas.
  • Building Collaborative Connections: What is it that you or your students are passionate about? How can you help to make connections between that area of interest and what the focus of your unit might be?
  • ODE Eye of Integration: When using our teacher eyes, we need to see connections not only to our content, but to the "metacurriculum" - those skills that go across content like writing with evidence, the ability to compare and contrast, using technology to collaborate on ideas.
  • Blank Connections Placemat: This is a tool to help you organize your brainstorming as a team.

Connecting Professional Expertise:
One of the great things that has come from sharing common standards and building common assessments is the ability to share ideas across classrooms, buildings, districts and states. Building a Professional Learning Network by connecting to other educators has allowed me to build knowledge of best practices, share out ideas for feedback, and have discussions that have helped me to reflect on my own thinking.  Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) magnify the power of an individual educator by 5, 10 or 100 fold.  I have learned that the old model of "go into your classroom, shut the door and teach" can no longer be supported in our 21st century world.   Our creativity builds when we can share ideas with each other. The way we think about instructional supports for students changes as we share data on what works and what may need to be changed.  I am constantly reflecting on my own beliefs by holding up new ideas or points of view to my own and making changes that will help me to be a more effective leader and educator.  Here are some resources to help you become a more connected educator.  Although these are technology resources, it isn't really about using technology to become connected. Technology is just a tool to help make these connections. Start with making connections across the hallway, across grade levels and across buildings in your district.

Making Connections To The Larger Community:
One way to build a stronger learning environment for teachers and students is to make connections with community partners, not just as field trip destinations or sources of speakers for career day, but partners in real world learning.  I am most excited about partnerships I have worked to strengthen between Bay Schools and the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, and Tri - C Community College. Here are some guiding questions to get you started:

  •  Who in your community may be a source of real world data for students to work with in science, math or social studies? 
  • Informational text is an important part of supporting literacy across content areas. What community partners might be willing to serve as an "off site" location for reading opportunities - focusing on local history, science, the arts?
  •  How about real world writing and research tasks? How might your students be able to contribute to the work of your community partner by doing research, or helping to identify possible solutions to a real world problem? 
  •  Is it possible to begin to build a network of connections across your region?
 Places to look for community partners include:

I know that I am a better educator because of the connections I helped to build this year.  I am looking forward to having some time this summer to look at how to continue to build connections across content areas, connections to my peers, and strengthen the connections with my community partners.

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