Edcamp Hamilton: Let It Flow

I attended edcamp Hamilton this past weekend.  It was my first cross country trip on my newly minted motorbike license as well as a chance to meet and self direct my professional development with colleagues from beyond my own board.  I got there heavily oxygenated and cold; the Starbucks on tap helped warm me up and then we were into sessions that the edcampers themselves suggested.

With over 140 people interested in education showing up on a Saturday morning just to talk shop, it was a busy, energizing affair.  The first session I attended started off a bit stiff, but quickly loosened up as the bar was raised on the pedagogical reflection.  Peter Skillen pitched some critical thinking on technology use in learning, and it wasn’t all the gee-wiz thinking from a few years ago.  We are such chameleons in our ability to change ourselves to fit our technology.  Peter asked some hard questions about how we’re making students connect to technology.  Educational technology seems to have reached a stage of maturity where we can ask hard questions about it.  Jane Mitchinson also brought up the idea of multi-tasking (or more accurately, rapid task switching) in terms of the information overflow students face when using digital tools.  Getting information from the internet is like drinking from a fire hose  you’ll get a face full, and it won’t be graceful or particularly useful.  Learning how to use these tools is something we’re still not very good at.  As an opening discussion it got everyone moving and for the newer edcampers it got them realizing how a single person isn’t running any of the sessions; this is a truly an open, democratic process.  It can’t be directed.

An awful lot of people meeting on their own time to discuss their profession,
I wonder how many politicians do that.

I got restless in the seconds session because it seemed to belabor a point that wasn’t going anywhere.  After listening to a bit of talk around how to keep your idealism in the current educational environment, I started getting quite negative, so I went for a wander to think about what was said and do one of the best things you can do at an edcamp – wander by rooms and stumble across awesome conversations.

In that session I left, Carlo Fusco said, “the education system was designed to sort people into jobs in order to fit them in to the new industrial model.  Education is there to sort people.”  I suspect he was being Socratic and pushing an idea so that others could question it, but my cynicism knows no bounds after the past year teaching in Ontario.  Others took a stab at it before I commented that I find it impossible to remain an idealist in the current Ontario educational climate.  With unions, governments and corporations playing games with education for their own benefit, I said I find it hard to believe in anyone’s best intentions.

The wandering broke up my negativity as I stumbled across wonderful, critical discussions about  gamification, online learning tools and what a twenty first century student needs to know.  One of the nicest things about an edcamp is that you want to be there (or you wouldn’t be).  No one is holding you to one mode of learning or thinking.

Earlier edcamps I attended had very few people in upper administrative roles attending, it was a real grass roots movement of teachers, student teachers and onsite admin, the people who work with students directly every day.  It was nice to see more senior administrative types at edcamp Hamilton, though their predilection for telling people how they should be thinking might get in the way of what edcamps are really about.  If  asking big questions settles my value theory and allows me to do my job better, then I’ll do it at an edcamp because that is where I get to direct my own professional development.  Suggesting limitations on what people should be allowed to talk about in order to promote an administrative objective strikes me a missing the point.  This has me thinking about educational leadership in a twenty first century context.  If we’re moving toward more self directed, less hierarchical ways of directing PD, how does an education leader move people in the direction they want them to?  We talk about student centered learning as an ideal to move towards.  Edcamps do that for PD, but not if we’re going to start drawing lines around what people can and can’t talk about.

I ended the day with some very interrogative discussions with people I have fundamental disagreements with about recent events in the Ontario PLN community.  This too was great PD because it allowed me to understand their point of  view and be less reactionary to it.

The last session of the edcamp still had larger groups meeting, but many smaller groups spun off and talked about what they needed to.  Ah, the freedom to not be told what to think; if only other PD had more of that.

I’ll call #EdCampHam another excellent EdCamp experience.  Thanks to the EdcampHam organizers for a wonderfully immersive day of thinking about my profession.

Some other Ed-blogs on EdCampHamilton:

Special Education

Near the end of my teacher’s college program, Nipissing put on an assistive learning tools workshop. We were all duly wowed by the latest version of Dragonspeak, the latest in PDAs and how they could be used in learning, and a surprising array of speech, numeracy, literacy and subject specific learning tools. It was an all day seminar, and it really had an impact on me. It also made me question the intent of all of this fantastic equipment.

Over and over, it was targeted at at-risk/below grade students who struggled with whatever the technology was supposed to help them overcome. Dragonspeak, there is no doubt, helps students see language in terms of the written word, but why does it need to be so carefully guarded from the general population? If a student struggling with literacy could use Dragonspeak to gain a foothold on something beyond their reach, couldn’t it just as easily help a group of media students get their ideas down in solid form while they were storyboarding a video? Couldn’t it assist a gifted writer who wants to try a different way of getting over writer’s block? These people aren’t anywhere near failing, but if we’re only using assistive tech to help those failing expectations, I think we’re wasting a valuable opportunity.
Those many learning tools we saw that day impressed upon me just how helpful technology could be in learning, I just didn’t understand why it all had to be so Special focused. Any one of those tools could help anyone learn. Learning isn’t easy, for anyone, it’s a challenge to stay focused, it’s a challenge to make the time and space to write, even if you think of yourself as a writer. It’s a challenge to get work in on time, even if you’re a top student. I watch excellent students in the form of teachers doing their Masters struggling with this very issue all the time.
In my senior year of high school, my grandfather died, our family pet died and shortly thereafter my father was involved in a near-fatal traffic accident. Always a B student (why draw unnecessary attention to yourself), my grades slipped, assignments weren’t handed in and things went from mediocre to worse. My teachers berated me for time management, I was not working “to expectations”. I didn’t tell anyone about what was going on at home, I was trying to hold it (and a shaky family) together as the oldest son. I’d never been special enough to get a special education, and the standard one wasn’t fitting now. I squeaked out of high school and it took me 3 years to get my self together and take another run at it in order to get grade 13 and go to university.
Whenever I have a student, regardless of what their Individual Education Plan does or doesn’t say, suddenly miss work, or class, I don’t start grading them in terms of expectations, I ask myself what’s going on in the other 99% of their lives that has little or nothing to do with my classroom. Sometimes I ask, sometimes they tell me, often they don’t, but I don’t take that as license to grade them to Ministry expectations.
Dealing with the system now as a parent for the first time has only enforced my understanding of how streaming generally works. My son is lucky in having 2 educated, very motivated and able parents who advocate for him strenuously. His challenges at school aren’t overwhelming, but many students face much worse obstacles, and don’t have the support at home to take on the system effectively. On a purely experiential basis, we could as easily stream academic/applied and essential into stable family/broken family/no-visible family, and you’d find a startling correlation between our current “academic” system of measurement and an often ignored key indicator of school success.
Differentiating, student centred learning and assistive technology all aim to produce an education that helps a student on as much of an individual basis as we can manage in a system that often has too many people and not enough money. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have Special Education, it would all be special education, in the meantime, you have to ask yourself, how often have you had grades dictated by a lack of access to assistive technology or poor student performance due to their circumstances beyond school?
Maybe one day education will just be special, but I don’t see that happening as long as we set up static, specific expectations and expect students to achieve them like automatons. An education has surprisingly little to do with building a better person. It’s a biological process, deeply tied to our physical development, circumstances and opportunities, but we still want to assess it as though it were a Victorian industrial process.

Extending the Canadian Motorcycle Riding Season: Snow Bikes!

The idea of a snowmobile conversion for a motorcycle keeps popping up everywhere this winter.  Timbersled makes just such a thing.  It’s seven grand Canadian for the system plus another fifteen hundred for the fitting kit.  The Husqvarna FE501S is a road legal dual sport bike that the kit fits.  They can be found for about twelve grand.  It’s a rich man’s game but that doesn’t stop me from dreaming about it.  For about twenty grand Canadian ($14,900 US) I’d have a year ’round off road specialist that would also get down the road when needed.  The thought of pulling up to a RIDE spotcheck in a blizzard on a plated version of one of these makes me quite happy.  Officer: ‘Uh, what’s that?’

The KLX250 I tried a while back was so slow with me on it that I felt unsafe on roads.  I couldn’t coax it to 100km/hr which meant I had a row of traffic behind me even on country back roads.  The Husky weighs less and has almost three times more horsepower.  Keeping up with traffic on back roads would not be a problem.  Those capabilities mean it’d carry me and some camping gear deep into the countryside in the summer while also being snow-bike convertible in the winter, all for twenty five hundred bucks less than a BMW GS.

A new snowmobile costs sixteen grand or more and only works for a few months of year if you’re lucky.  From that point of view a road ready enduro bike with a Timbersled system looks like a more useful and cost effective approach to riding in the snow (and everything else). 

Timbersled Snow Conversion System

The Husqvarna FE 501S Dual Sport Motorcycle

In the snow!

In the desert!

On forest trails!  All on the same bike.

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