The teachable moment that took me out of the classroom: how 12 brilliant young women taught me about myself

In education, we often talk about teachable moments – those impromptu invaluable lessons that change our perspective. Often, we the teachers recognize, facilitate, and maximize those special and unexpected opportunities. I want to tell you about one particular teachable moment – this time, it was a huge epiphany for me, the teacher.

This past year, I worked at a very special place called the Linden School. I taught a Communications Technology elective for Grades 10-12. I facilitated this small class of 12 students like a typical university seminar, complete with Friday morning breakfasts and an emphasis on critical discussion.

I focused the year’s learning around personal branding. Grounded in the easy-to-read text by Dorie Clark, Reinventing You, the girls and I conducted focus groups. In our safe space, we talked openly about each other. We shared what we observed to be the strengths and weaknesses of our peers. I too was the subject for a focus group.

Listen here to my focus group

Direct link: Monica focus group

For most of you, some of the content requires insider knowledge to which you are not privy. Most people don’t know about the little quirks of my classroom. But if any of my former students actually listen to this, they’ll likely laugh at the jokes and may recall particular references. But I think anyone can gather that the girls allude to and directly talk about me working in spaces outside the classroom. While they said all this, I quietly took notes and listened as they independently managed the focus group.

After the focus group session, during our class debrief on the process, this was when the teachable moment happened for me.

The girls looked a little agitated and they began to ask many questions about my former work and education. After I turned off the audio recorder, my student Adriana probed some more, “So why are you here?” – here being at the school, teaching them.

It took me a moment to think of an answer that still validated my work, my investment in them, and my choice to be at the school. The girls knew about the various ‘big’ projects I was working on – much of it had to do with recommending improvements for communications, marketing and recruitment, fundraising, and technology. As much as I tried to manage the work, they noticed I was spread too thin across major – and competing – priorities, teaching being one of them.

I remember telling them how I consciously left the UK for this particular role and how I was excited to be back in the classroom. But in my heart, I knew they were recognizing something in me that I wasn’t quite yet ready to consider. What exactly, you ask? Well, that perhaps I am better suited outside the classroom.

Many of my students enjoyed the course. A few even had similar epiphanies about themselves and  noted the 2013-14 year as one of tremendous personal growth. That makes me feel fantastic.

But truly, I will forever remember the TGJ course, those students, and that particular day of my silly and serious focus group session – it sparked a shift in me and my work.

I write this now as I embark on a new journey. I’m beginning a second Master’s – this time in Professional Communication. And I owe it all to those girls. Thank you.

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Main photo by Tobi Firestone via Flickr

Teetering with technology: how I explore my own use, disuse & misuse of 21st century devices and tools

An earlier version of this post was published in the Linden School’s literary journal, House of Girls. A print copy is available for purchase at the school now; an electronic version will come out soon.

Contrary to popular belief, this technology teacher isn’t all that techie. Sure, I have a few of the latest devices, but I also place great value in some of the classic ways of reading, writing and interacting. I probably write just as often with a good, old-fashioned pen and paper than with my laptop, tablet or phone. I still call up my best friends to come over for a gabfest, even though my public social media profiles divulge details of my life. Every day I read and review web articles and videos. But ever fall asleep while reading or watching something on your iPad? Well, a glass screen bonking you on the nose can wake you up quicker than those annoying analog alarm clocks, I tell ya.

Though, I think things are a bit more complicated. You see, I prefer to order my food with a server than through an iPad, but will never step foot in a restaurant without checking its Yelp reviews first. I solicit book recommendations in online forums yet still spend hours browsing used bookstores. I probably have as many books in my library as I have followers on Twitter. I love the printed word, so much so that I chose to lug a luggage full of books home from the UK than housing digital copies of these texts in a tablet. Technically, I had some help with that heavy load of literature, but I’m sure my friends and the airport porters were muttering “Oy vey” under their breath.

In class, I ask my students to critique our learning activities using new technology or paper. Sometimes they submit handwritten reflections; sometimes they post it online. Often, I ask them to evaluate the very software used for our learning tasks. I want them to choose their tools wisely. Do we collaborate on a Google doc or do we talk face-to-face? Do you ask the teacher or do you crowdsource information? In what ways can technology support our tasks and help us meet our goals? In what ways can it complicate this? Sometimes I purposely structure problematic activities so the girls understand it is important to pick the right medium to communicate a message, the right tool to create a product, the right words to bring our ideas to life.

As someone who supports both adults and young people in learning about ‘technology’ and ‘social media’, I have to figure out how to make sense of these tools and practices – however new or old. I suppose some would argue I am light years ahead in my understanding of technology and social media. But some would say I’m quite behind.

Just the other Sunday, I was posting pictures of past travels on Instagram using the hashtag #TBT. I immediately received a WhatsApp message (instant message application on my phone) from a friend asking, “Aren’t you posting that on the wrong day?” These shared moments of nostalgia, tagged with those three key letters, were apparently part of the “Throwback Thursday” trend. I had interpreted it as “Turn back time” (shout out to anyone who knows the Cher song). D’oh. Despite being the Technology Teacher, clearly I’m behind on hashtags and social media trends. All my years of training and experience using social media, there are still more things to learn.

I remember when my mom thought LOL meant Lots of Love. Look who’s laughing now…

 

Morning conversation – Creeping my Instagram

Note: The girls call me by my first name.

SCENE: Computer lab. Thursday morning, about 5 minutes before 1st period starts. I’m answering emails on my computer in the lab, other students are in the room doing work before class.

A Grade 7 girl walks in.

Student: Mooooniiicaaaa…
Me: Yes?
Student: The Grade 8s wanted to ask you if you were married.
Me: What! Why do they want to know?
Student: Uhh ’cause you’re beautiful and we didn’t see a ring on your fingers. [looking at my hands]
[Senior students, in the room working, start to giggle]
Me: Tell the Grade 8s that I said y’all should just mind ya own biznaaass.
Student: [looking embarrassed] We’re just curious!
Me: Why didn’t you Google ‘Monica Batac married’ or…
Student: [interrupts] Well… some of us were looking at your Instagram and we saw a picture of a wedding.
Me: What! [laughs] Okay, well let’s pull up my Instagram then.

[we look at my computer and they point to the picture in question]

Me: Yeah, that’s not me.
[More giggling and jokes]
Me: Wait a sec… you all were worried about ME stalking all of y’all? Glad to know y’all are Googling my name and checking me out online.

Building a community and culture of two-way communication: my MT experience & some thoughts for U of T

I recently sat down with Crystal Chin, a Communication Intern in the Office of Student Life, to talk about my experiences with communications at University of Toronto, my program experience, as well as my research and perspectives on technology/social media use in institutions. You can read some of our conversation here. [The selective transcription doesn’t mention my program experience, so I’ve written about it in this post]

Today, University of Toronto is hosting a Student Communications Summit. I anticipate the day will encourage fruitful dialogue and collaborations between different stakeholders here at the university. I won’t be in attendance, but I indeed look forward to what emerges from the day’s conversations.

I wanted to elaborate a bit more on two recent tweets I posted with the #listenUT hashtag.

@monicabatac: How do I share my two cents about my program? Everything from online surveys, focus group, comm committee, chats w/director #OISE #listenUT

@monicabatac: #listenUT: Search of #UofT, diff POVs & voices: acceptance/rejection letters, campus info, ?s, rants/raves, pics. Academics, social, random

The #listenUT hashtag was created to encourage students to share their experiences and recommendations regarding communications with University of Toronto. I recall reading a tweet that questioned how to engage students in Robarts (were they called study “zombies?’ or something?) in sharing/vocalizing their thoughts/perspectives.

My initial reaction is to cringe at any “Robarts” student stereotype, nonetheless my current thinking urges me to ask a fundamental question. Whose voices are represented at this communications summit? When we look to social media or voluntary focus groups to gather information about student experiences, are we only tapping into a particular group of social media/technologically savvy and/or “vocal” student populations?

If you search the #listenUT hashtag, I’d say there are very few responses. If you search #UofT instead, you’ll find a huge range of perspectives and information: everything from high school students sharing their acceptances/rejections, campus food events, students cramming and campus-wide exam anxiety, Instagram photos of Hart House, overheard student conversations, to department/faculty/research news releases.

If you already blog for some department/service for U of T, are heavily involved in campus life/student groups/extra curriculars, or engage with the university via social media, you’d know about this communication summit. You might be in attendance, you may have given your two cents via Twitter, your own blogging, or perhaps in a past focus group. If you hold a staff position where student experience or communications is part of your agenda, then you may have received an invite. What about all the other students? Other staff members? Faculty members? Sessional instructors? The list goes on and on.

I’ve sat in on a few focus groups for my own graduate program (Master of Teaching at OISE) and department, and indeed it has often been voluntary. I know for my colleagues who are single parents, married or have employment commitments, they certainly don’t have the luxury or flexibility in their schedules to come to such initiatives. Does that mean they cannot share their experiences? To counter that, we have often had the option of sending emails or responding to an online/paper survey. Though, I know for myself, a few of these important surveys have slipped through the [virtual or school bag] cracks and I forget to submit them.

For my program in particular, it has been very beneficial for students to feel not only encouraged to share their honest opinions, positive/negative experiences, evaluations and suggestions, but to be actively involved in improving our program. From cohort student representatives, monthly communications meetings, an emerging student association, focus groups, online surveys, open door policies [virtual and actual office doors] with our administrators and instructors, and even the promotion of Pepper and Twitter as collaborative communities, communication has improved drastically within my 2 years there.

I feel like my program is rapidly evolving into a collaborative community and this overall culture is mirrored in our course content and delivery, right to program planning, vision, and administration. While I am set to graduate soon, I have strong ties to the program and look forward to its constant growth and development.

An important lesson to take away from my own experience with communications within my program  – there’s no one way of “communicating.” Indeed, my program is fairly proficient in using technology to communicate and gather student feedback. However, there are also equal, if not further opportunities to meet face-to-face individually or in groups with different faculty, admin, and our program director. Heck, I spent an hour last week chatting with two of my professors [who also hold admin positions for the program] about summer plans and PhD proposals. Part of that was also spent hovering over a laptop to Google something, sharing personal stories, cracking jokes, and having the department chair drop in. Talk about accessibility.

I discussed a possible tension of communication, transparency, and accessibility with Crystal. It’s one thing for students to desire these things & another thing to provide it all together. Coming from a small graduate program, perhaps I have a skewed and biased perspective. Though at the end of the day, the foundations of collaboration, communication, and community have been built and are improving in different ways after each interaction –via email, at a meeting, each week/month/semester/year.

So that’s a small glimpse of my student experience at University of Toronto. I’m one of those social media-tech savvy, vocal students. I’ve posted it on my blog. I’ll post the link to Twitter with the appropriate hashtags. I’ll send the link to my program director and research supervisor. I’m sure another student in the program would prefer to chat over the phone or in person. Another may rather send an email response. Some may even decline the offer to share.

Communication should be two-way. The best communication is collaborative. True communication is accessible with multiple opportunities for interaction and participation. As all students have “the right to pass” (i.e. decline an invitation to the discussions), it is also important to develop and promote a collaborative, inclusive, and transparent culture in numerous ways – small and large scale, embedded and explicit. This can be a challenge for such a large institution, but student blogs, Twitter accounts, and the Student Communications Summit show great promise.

 

Social Media and Parental Involvement

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how we engage with parents at classroom and board levels.  I recently posted about how I seek to make a clear, direct path and link between parents and myself as Trustee.

I know many educators who use email, Twitter, class blogs, websites, Facebook, and other on-line platforms to share information with parents.  I must make clear the distinction between using social media to merely transmit knowledge and using it to create, develop, and maintain dialogue.  Colleague Lorna Costantini discusses this distinction:

Are teachers using SM to ask parents what they think? Is it being used to seek advice from parents? Are we using Facebook and twitter to maintain two-way communications? Are we providing training for parents on how to respond and engage using these tools? Is it the already engaged parents who are engaging now using SM? How many parents are connected with smart phones, computers the Internet? Is there any data to support how many parents know how to use these tools. I want to hear overwhelming that SM is being used successfully to engage parents but in general I don’t think it is. I need to be bang on in writing about tools for parents of teens so can you share your thoughts on how best to do it?

I believe we must

  1. Share information with parents using social media
  2. Train parents how to use social media
  3. Develop collaborative and transparent dialogue with parents using social media

Full article by Lorna Costantini can be found here.

Accessibility & communication – reaching out

I want to quickly reflect on the language/content design of my website, relating it back to my priorities in inclusion & differentiation & apply it to my campaign development.

As I was writing the content for my campaign website, my friend & colleague Colin Harris (@digitalnative) helped with refining some ideas.  We worked together to make key priorities and approaches understandable to those who aren’t in the field of education while still reaching those who are.

I am also quite aware that having a words-only, English-based website will not reach everyone.  I couldn’t put a Translate widget, but did provide a link to web translation. I’m working on getting audio & video created.

But most importantly, I need to develop a face-to-face campaign and canvassing strategy that will enable me to talk with the residents of Ward 20.  How can I reach out in meaningful ways to not just the voters, but to all stakeholders involved?

We talk about this as educators: How can I reach and meet the needs the diverse students in the classroom? Translates well into political work, don’t you think?  I am flexible & willing to do what it takes to connect with and collaborate with the community I aim to serve.

 

Blogging woes – “just post it”?

I was trying to catch up with Royan Lee‘s blog & came across one post that has now sparked a posting of my own.

Royan’s short post about blogging suggests we should “just post it.”  I’ve been struggling with the blogging process for the past year.  I have plenty of topics and ideas, that’s certainly not the problem.  I’ve blogged in the past about my preference for face-to-face conversations, but the opportunities come fairly infrequently (Skype, Google Hangout, Twitter DMs and email seem to help in the meantime).  I’m also finding that if I cannot discuss something with another person, I become quite agitated and anxious.  It’s funny – it’s a physical reaction when I’m sitting in seminars or at a conference session.  I’ve sent many Twitter DMs in silent workshops.  I need that back channel & interaction.

I think my blogging block remains because many of my questions and comments lead to more questions, and this leads yet again to further agitation.  Blogging nor face-to-face discussions provide a remedy to philosophical or political implications, but this drives my reflective process.  Would you call this overanalyzing?  I sort of relish in the uncertainty and discomfort, as it provides fuel to the fire.  I often find myself blogging on superficial levels, but how can I blog about developing ideas… things that aren’t so clear cut to myself, let alone possible readers?

Will sharing more thoughts via this blog help alleviate the sometimes overwhelming reflective process?  Or will I make myself appear as a tumultuous mess?  Because that’s how I often feel about most things… articulating is incredibly difficult.

My need for F2F Engagement – why I find “little time to blog”

After a summer hiatus from blogging, I want to return to writing by first reflecting on my use of blogging.

I’ve had a very eventful summer so far, professionally.  I traveled to Philadelphia for TEDxPhiladelphiaEd, EduBloggerCon, and ISTE11 in June.  I’ve been participating in the planning discussions for edcamptoronto. In the past 6 months, I’ve met so many great educators, teachers, consultants, administrators, and community members interested and invested in education.  We’ve chatted over coffee, lunch, dinner & dessert, discussing a range of topics from practical and problematic implementation of educational technology, particular software and hardware, research ideas, job links, and so on.

I’ve been constantly asking myself – do I need to blog about these great interactions, conversations, and experiences?

I first thought, “YES!” – that it was essential to record and return what I had learned, discussed, and debated.  Yet I found myself not having “enough” time to write a blog post.  I started to think critically about my use of time and energy, realizing that I actually DO have enough time…. but I prefer and plan for face-to-face conversations.

I do see the merits in blogging – and I will continue to do so as I see fit.  I do need to increase my frequency.  But I stand by the belief that personal and physical interactions and friendships cannot be beat.  Indeed, perhaps if I blog more, I’ll obtain more comments. But I’d rather use my time for banter over sushi and vegetarian cuisine – this is the “high” I crave (as my friend @KentManning described over one meal).  My brain remains in overdrive as I reflect well after I’ve parted ways with one friend – and continues when I bring the topic to another.  Whether or not a blog post comes from it – not my top priority just yet.

Perhaps I should be taking out my digital recorder and Flipcam more often for in-the-moment idea/conversation recording…

 

Twitter as “Zone of Professional Development”

Wanted to share an awesome blog post by Robert Madden – “Twitter – Zone of Professoinal Development.”

You can access the link here or full link: http://classroomapplications.com/twitter-zone-professional-development

I’m a firm believer in using Twitter for professional development. I’m in constant dialogue with teachers and educators. If I have a general or specific question about resources, technology, classroom management… I have hundreds of teacher “friends” who can help me out. We discuss philosophy and educational issues (standardized testing, merit pay, funding, culturally relevant pedagogy, etc.). I find myself completely immersed in education – it’s my passion. I’m able to still be engaged, to constantly learn from peers, to discuss and debate, even after my graduate seminars have ended… and it’s literally at my finger tips (Twitter linked to my Blackberry!).

I’ve tried to convince some of my classmates to join Twitter for the professional development both Robert Madden (@mrmadden77) and I participate in daily. Try it out!