An Interview with Educator Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle level English Language Arts teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron dispels a myth the less-connected have about connected educators, makes the case that being unconnected is the real time-sink, reveals what she thinks educators need to do to further the cause, and what she herself plans to do to get more connected…

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Q: If I were an unconnected colleague you wanted to get more involved in connected education, what is the first thing you’d send me, show me, or do with me? 

Actually, one of the things I really do understand is being “tech tentative.”  I had a Mac SE in college that I really only used to for typing essays.  Beyond using Word, I never thought about computers.  I was a proud Shakespeare geek.  Then, in 2005, I went to the CUE conference (Computer Using Educators) in Palm Springs, CA.  The CUE organization welcomed me in, and I was hooked.  I saw the writing on the wall. Yes, Shakespeare is important.  Yes, all of our disciplines are important, but if our students aren’t learning how to interact online and communicate their content and their passions online in professional ways, then we aren’t preparing them for their future.  So, to answer your question: I remember what made me wake up to the importance of being connected.  It was finding people who didn’t make me feel awful for not knowing.  And they are so easy to find!

So you aren’t a connected educator?  No problem.  None of us were for a long time. Find your local Computer-Using Educators organization or International Society for Technology in Education organization.  They all understand greenies.  Jumping into a connected network is life altering.  By bringing innovation to your teaching, your students will have more fun learning.  The by-product is, of course, that you’ll enjoy teaching more as well.

More specifically, look around at blogs.  Read.  Comment.  It doesn’t hurt, I promise.  It’s how I started finding an online Professional Learning Community of my own.  Join an organization like Powerful Learning Practice or discussion group like those at Edutopia.  Open a Twitter account and just start following some great educators.  They don’t have to be profound.  Maybe they just make you laugh.  Maybe they make you think about a new way to approach a lesson.  Maybe they’ll share a resource, a link to something, that just inspires you in a new way.  Better yet, send out your own tweet.  Maybe someone retweets what you had to say, and all of a sudden, you’ll find that you are a voice in a community.  As a result, you’ll be braver to try new strategies once you find a community from which you are learning and with whom you are interacting. 

Dip your toe into the pool slowly.  There is no “Connectedness Police.”  Nobody’s watching that you have to do everything all at once.  Become accustomed to one connected tool at a time.  Then broaden your toolbox when you’re ready.  You’ll find that you increase momentum as you explore the conversations and collaborations going on out there.

Q:  What do you say to educators who say they do not have time to be more connected?  

I totally get it.  I really do.  Diving into a new pool can be scary.   But the fear of trying, and the time you spend trying to convince yourself that you don’t have time, takes more time than the actual exploration and learning.  But dive you must.  The good news is that once you become more connected, it spirals into a professional addiction, and in the end, you will actually save yourself time. 

The connected community is one built on the principles of collaboration.  Save yourself the time of reinventing the wheel and reach out to those who already developed a better one.  The resources are already out there.  The experts willing to teach you and advise you are already out there.  The tools are already out there.  All it takes is jumping in.  There are tons of folks ready to throw you a water noodle and swim right next to you while you doggie paddle.  And I assure you that you’ll learn things quickly if you are fearless enough to try. 

But be prepared: as you begin to learn from others, your own imagination will begin to bubble and brew more.  You will find that there are others who want to hear your advice too, and all of a sudden, you’ll discover that you’re learning reciprocally in your connected network. 

Q: What would you recommend educators do to get more support for connected education in their school, district, and/or state? 

Gosh, this one I could get in real trouble for, but here goes: in my experience, the deep, innovative, successful use of connectedness is something that is not top-down.   Innovation is always grassroots.  It trickles up.  Just as teachers have always reached into their own pockets for school supplies, so have many of us reached out for connected networks and resources despite support from those around us.  However, you can find success in doing what you know works, even if you haven’t had the go-ahead from a boss to do so. 

If you want more support, you have to show your administrative team the power of what you want to accomplish.  Pilot something quietly.  Form your own virtual learning community, share resources, and advise each other.  Find others who will help ripple out the enthusiasm for a project, for a tool, for a philosophy.   Then, invite other stakeholders in to see your conversations.  Be transparent.  My room, virtual or real, always has an open door.  Parents, teachers, visitors, can come in any day just to see what is going on.  That kind of well-intentioned transparency was never abused.  It was always appreciated. I always welcome it because it helps promote the power I feel connectedness gives to education. 

Q: How do you plan to get more connected in the next year or two? 

Learning never stops, right?  I think my next step is to become more international in my collaborations.  I want to become more connected with a broader network of educators.  I’ve been working with organizations like ePals to collaborate with classrooms and teachers in different countries.  I want my professional learning community to wave many flags.  

On a more local level, I want to continue working in my own district to advocate differentiated learning for teachers and a more personalized professional development.  I think connectedness has a huge role to play in that future.

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"Dip your toe into the pool slowly. There is no “Connectedness Police.” Nobody’s watching that you have to do everything all at once. Become accustomed to one connected tool at a time. Then broaden your toolbox when you’re ready. You’ll find that you increase momentum as you explore the conversations and collaborations going on out there."

About Educator Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and passionate ed tech advocate.  This year, she will be teaching 8th grade ELA, and she spent the summer developing a blended learning class for remedial 7th graders to give them an alternative means to learn both math and writing.  She also coaches a nationally ranked Speech and Debate team. 

She has authored workbooks on teaching Internet Literacy for grades 3-8, workbooks on Project Based Writing, grades 3-8, as well as the upcoming Nonfiction Reading Strategies for the Common Core, grades 1-7.  She is the author of  ˜Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers and the upcoming Writing Behind Every Door: Strategies to Teach Common Core Writing Across the Curriculum.

Heather blogs for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.org as well as her own Tweenteacher site.  She is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teacher Leaders Network and a Fellow of the National Writing Project.

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