Saturday, March 12, 2016

#MACUL16 Part 1: A Culmination of Cultural Revolution (Spring Synergy)

For those of us fortunate to be a part of the Michigan Virtual School instructional team, we participated in our annual pre-MACUL conference this past Wednesday (now called "Spring Synergy"). Doesn't that name just get you up and moving?

Last year our pre-MACUL day consisted mostly of outside session facilitators who spoke to us on a variety of topics. The sessions were good, but there was something very special about this year's event. Each session facilitator was from MVU, and many of them were our very own instructors or former instructors. The information presented was very practical to teaching online (finding information that can readily be implemented in the fully online environment is a challenge at almost any conference, even MACUL). In fact, one of our world language instructors told me that the conferences we put on are getting better and better, and she's so glad that she took the time and effort to come. She had practical ideas she was excited to implement as soon as she could!

More encouraging yet was a conversation I had with my esteemed colleague Peter about Wednesday's event. He had heard a good report about our event, and he mentioned that he could imagine the learning and sharing that happened was the result of several months of effort to provide continual professional development to our instructional team. I had to take a step back and really think about Peter's comment... we have been working really hard to provide continuous professional development for our instructors, whether through big events like Collaboration of the Minds, our monthly online department meetings, our face-to-face Synergy Sessions, or our weekly iEducator webinars. I'd like to highlight this last one in particular, providing some context.

This summer, several (all, really) of us full-time instructors were involved in developing a brand new training program that could take a newbie and turn him/her into a full-time online instructor in only 1 month. Ambitious? Yes. I feel that we have developed our best training program to date, and the most beautiful thing about it was that it was such a collaborative effort. Even more noteworthy, though, is that the training didn't end with a period; it ended with an ellipsis. That is, this is only the beginning...

Every week of the school year our full-time instructors and/or iEducators themselves have been working to provide a novel, highly-interactive webinar to teach our iEducator team (and anyone else who cares to come) new skills to implement in the online classroom. People on our team are pouring themselves out on an ongoing basis to articulate to others the amazing things they're doing in their classrooms, with their students, mentors, and parents. No one has been exempted from providing the webinars (it's a team effort), and we all benefit each and every week. 

More than that, as the walls of our online classes come down (we see inside what other instructors are doing more and more), we create a shared vision for excellence and engagement with our students, and we all continually hear and try new and innovative strategies, creating new iterations of someone else's idea and then sharing it. I know this type of sharing has been going on in the F2F and blended world via educators who are active in PLCs, but it was particularly encouraging to see this happening in our online ed world like I haven't before. I feel we're right in the midst of a deep and lasting culture shift at MVS.

In the spirit of "letting the walls come down" check out our MVS World Languages department teaming up on Wednesday and doing some grading together, reflecting on how their online grading strategies may be similar to or different from one another.

Finally, I wish to touch specifically on collaboration a bit. I'm the kind of guy who's comfortable doing his own thing, and I don't really like people seeing a work in progress, so to speak. I would rather prep something on my own, in the comfort of my own perspective and thought processes. I'm learning (somewhat slowly) that collaboration is a true blessing, as I need others' perspectives. Plus, we can produce so much faster when we work together (provided that relationship and shared culture of expectations have been adequately developed). More than anything, I have learned this in our lead instructor team. It's pretty much a given that the six of us will meet prior to an event such as Spring Synergy to discuss how we'll be communicating consistent information in our department breakout sessions as well as share/borrow/remix what we have each developed.

I could not have imagined this is what our team dynamic would have looked like 2 years or even 1 year ago. While the full-time instructional staff has always been very open to sharing and learning from one another, I don't feel that it truly became an essential part of the nature of our culture until this past year. We truly have an outstanding team with leadership that has provided an example as well as architecture for this type of culture to blossom. You can't force a culture shift on an organization or team, but you can plant the seeds and water them. A huge thank you to our leaders (you know who you are!) for letting this happen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A mutually encouraging interaction

So, it's almost time for MACUL when some 4,000 or so Michigan educators will descend upon Grand Rapids and learn/share/collaborate like crazy for 3 days. This is an amazing conference, and I often go away overwhelmed by an information overload...this new strategy I'd like to incorporate into online teaching or that new tool to try.

One of the things I was almost certain that I would feel after MACUL: I should be blogging! So, this post is an attempt to subvert that sensation of being "behind" or lacking in one more area before it gets here. :)

In the realm of online teaching, we spend a lot of time having one-on-one interactions with students. For me, these typically occur through my feedback (text or video) left on assignments, email interactions, and text messages. It may also include a phone call (imagine that!), which is a method I'm finding increasingly beneficial. Many of my colleagues have conducted a lot of their interactions through this format, and I've been a slow adopter, probably due to my tendency to want to weigh words carefully before responding (anyone else a green on the True Colors assessment?).

Out of all of the interactions we have in a given week (hundreds), how many of them lead to a positive outcome? How many times is the communication one-sided (reaching out to a struggling student or his/her mentor and not receiving a reply)? I think I have a tendency to focus on what's not going well to a fault and thus forget the good that truly is occurring in my online classrooms.

Today I had a very rich interaction with a student that encouraged both of us. Here's a little recap of what was said as well as the context around how this interaction occurred. You may also enjoy my curious onlooking son in the background.

So, here's to focusing on the positive outcomes as well as taking that risk to say, "Please call me to chat about this". Yes, I said "call".