Finding Balance

A while back, I wrote a piece here that was truly from the hip, and while I don’t regret writing it whatsoever, I do sometimes wonder how it reflects on me as an educator.

You see, at heart I am vehemently pro-kid, almost to a fault, and at times this finds me in precarious situations when it comes to teachers.  By first thinking of students, my initial reactions lead me to questions like “how can we get this information in the hands of students?” or “let’s make sure our kids are seeing this;” this is unsettling to some because it immediately places the honus of doing this onto the teachers.  My intentions are good, but it is not always communicated that way to the teachers that are directly in charge of our students.

To be pro-kid does not equate to being anti-teacher.

Jay Matthews had a great piece in the WaPo this week in which he railed against teachers who refuse to use the internet in their classrooms as a means of communicating to parents.  On two levels this sounded eerily familiar.  The first is the piece I wrote here a few months back that called out the teachers who openly claim they hate technology.  The second is that I am blown away by the pushback I have gotten from teachers lately regarding the posting of homework and grades via the internet, and you can clearly see this in the comments at the bottom of the article.

In our district, we ask that our teachers maintain a website, post weekly lesson plans using our online lesson planner which also pushes out daily homework assignments automatically, and in a very short time our gradebook, which is part of our SIS, will be going live to the parents of our Middle and High School students.   In short:

  • website (via OnCourse Systems)
  • lesson plans that automatically post daily homework (the lesson planner feature of OnCourse takes anything you place in homework and publishes it after a certain date and time)
  • gradebook online (a product called Genesis which is fairly specific to New Jersey)

Philosophical debates about whether or not grades or homework should be posted online aside, this is where I run into problems in relation to the “pro-kid” mentality I have.  The feedback we are getting is that there is too much redundancy in the system, and that processes that used to take just part of their Sundays are now taking all of their Sundays.  If we can provide one system that integrate at least two of these three processes and automate them as much as possible so that there is minimal double-entry, shouldn’t that work?  What I am hearing are comments much like this one from the Matthews’ article:

How about a reality check. This issue is simple:

(1) Time. I teach three preps, 6 sections. Each period is a separate page on the school’s gradebook (and communication web site). So I have to update 6 separate, click happy pages.

(2) Place. I don’t have my own classroom with a desk and a computer. I share an “office” with five people. We have one computer. (Now ask about the phone – 8 of us share a line. No voice mail.)

(3) Use. Even after doing all this, only
about 1/3 of the parents actually log on. Yes, parents, we can track this, too.

Posted by: altaego60 | December 21, 2009 9:28 AM

And while this situation (especially the computer situation mentioned in number 2) is not exactly indicative of where I work, it may be in many schools around the world.  We are pushing the idea of transparency by opening up some of the “guts” of education to open public view, but we are in the initial stages of the best ways to do it.  For some of the teachers I work with, the system is fine and they have figured out how to make it work, but for others, even some of our early adopters, they find it cumbersome to have to post their lesson plans in one place, homework in another place, and grades in another portal, in addition to maintaining a website.

We have rolled this out to the staff in the “rough-ready”stage, meaning that we knew there would be feedback and that the process would be an ongoing one to figure out what works best for all stakeholders.  My question as we do this is whether or not the systems we roll out take into account the teacher feedback on the workflow aspect of it.  What I mean is can we ask teachers what the best system for making all of these pieces available to parents and students is, and then design our pieces accordingly.  Too often, I think we in the ed tech field are guilty of imposing our workflows onto the teachers.  Sure, it is dead simple for me to operate the three parts of our requirements without losing any time that I would have taken before–but I had a huge part in designing them.  What I’d like to see are some other models that people use around the country and world to open up these parts to their communities.

If nothing else after reading the comments in the Matthews article, after being a teacher, and observing all of the mandates placed on teachers in this day and age, we should not impose anything on teachers that eats away at their primary responsibility: helping students learn and grow.  If our systems for creating transparency are detracting from that, we need to rethink how we are doing it.

Cross-posted at TechLearning.


Meeting Notes

It was one of those days.

I had tired of the regular, beginning of the month department meeting (this was the 7th in 8 days) and for some reason, I felt the need to have one of those meetings where you check in with why you are doing what you are doing.  Whether it be a few parent concerns that have arisen, or questions from other departments, I can’t say exactly, but some of the resources that have been coming through my filters lately have really made me look closely at what we do here.  What follows are the notes from the meeting that I sent out to our Connections teachers on their Google Group.

As you all know, we just completed the QSAC process here, and with that we went through every shred of curriculum we have in the district (including those old PBL’s) to make sure we met the standards.  In doing that, so many thoughts about the next steps we need to take kept coming to me.  We are at the precipice of some very big change in the field of education, and at times I feel as if we are so far behind the steps that the rest of the world has taken in this regard.  However, as Dr. Richard Miller from Rutgers says in his address “when Gutenberg invented the printing press, we didn’t have Europe plus books, we had a whole new Europe.”  Well, when I look at what we are trying to do here, it’s not like this is teaching learning plus cool new tools, but rather whole new teaching and learning. (I used from 3:22 on)

The nature of composition is really changing.  My own two kids will not only have to know how to write, and write well, but they will also have to understand how to compose their message in ways that capture the visual nature of our society today.  That’s not only everything we had to learn growing up, but it’s also a whole range of design skills that we were never asked to put to use.  Here’s one of the graphics I used to start the meeting:

Looking at how we consume words now, can we legitimately give our students a print-dominated reading and writing experience?  I don’t think we can anymore.  Yes, they will have to know the parameters of how to construct good writing, but the finished product is going to look so much different from a term paper or an essay.  Composition is now beyond the paper.

And when our intake of words is dominated by three other sources before print, can the teaching of critical analysis skills be limited to just one medium?  Friends of mine in college used to joke that schools were missing the boat by not teaching kids how to watch television critically.  I sloughed them off as being to saturated with it themselves as they were all going into that field upon graduation.  Now, here I am almost fifteen years later designing classes in media literacy and connected writing in which that medium is one of the most talked and written about.

Listening to the stories about the projects you have undertaken with the kids, from multi-genre research papers to documentary films, all with an emphasis on providing multiple means of expression while still holding them to design standards, I can’t help but think we are moving a direction that our students will benefit greatly from.

Here are the links to the resources I used so that you may go through them on your own and form your own opinions.  Thank you for all the great conversation and the feedback during our meeting.  I look forward to hearing more from you regarding the conversation.

Single Media Schools…

Google Living Stories

Sports Illustrated Tablet

Rutgers University English Chairman’s address to the Board of Trustees
“The future is now”

Anonymously Dropped Off

Yesterday, upon returning to my desk after being out on Friday and in meetings all morning on Monday, I found an envelope on my desk that was sent via inter-office mail.  Inside of the oft-recycled envelope were a series of desk calendar dates, each with a particular saying on them.  Here is a sample of the Monday, December 7th entry:

Technology can become detrimental to your quality of life when you use the time it saved to get more work done.

The ideas contained in the desk calendar philosophy are not the issue I have; there isn’t one of them that I don’t agree with.  (Even this one: Don’t allow yourself to become a slave to the devices that are meant to be a convenience for you.)  Rather, why not present these to me in a manner that opens dialogue about what you are feeling regarding technology and its role in your occupation?

If I’ve learned nothing else in the past few years, it’s that there will be things that come into your sphere that you embrace quickly and then let go just as quickly.  There are many additive technologies, but what truly makes a difference in our lives, especially the quality of our lives, is the types of technology that are truly transformative.  Another interesting piece is how individualized it all is.  What is revolutionary for me, is drivel and chore for someone else.  However, we all need to strive to find the balance between that which is adding to our workload, and that which transforms it and makes it more efficient.

Right now, someone in my district is striving to find that balance, and letting me know about it too.

Adult Learning Theory as it applies to Children

Larry Cuban, or rather his guest writer Dr. Joel Merenstein, has a rather interesting take on how to best help people learn new material. 

Very simply, he says, focus on two things: getting them actively engaged in material that matters to them, and ask that they teach that material to some audience.  The question he poses though, is does that hold true for younger students? 

What do you think?  Is that what your classroom looks like?

Selling Their Wares

Last Sunday featured an interesting article in the New York Times by Winnie Hu, “Selling Lessons Online Raises Cash and Questions,” in which she unveiled, at least to me, that the sale of finished lessons by teachers is a booming business.  I knew it was possible to purchase lesson plans online, but I had no idea that is was actually a profitable endeavor.  Some of the teachers profiled are making a killing.

As the title suggests, there are a lot of issues that this brings up for society as a whole.  There are the usual:

“To the extent that school district resources are used, then I think it’s fair to ask whether the district should share in the proceeds,” said Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

regarding the intellectual property of teachers in which they use the resources that taxpayers provide them with to turn a personal profit.  And there are the professional, brought up by Joseph McDonald, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University:

“Teachers swapping ideas with one another, that’s a great thing,” he said. “But somebody asking 75 cents for a word puzzle reduces the power of the learning community and is ultimately destructive to the profession.”

This one hits at home a little for me, which after my initial shock at the dollar amounts that could be made subsided, was the next gut reaction.  Does the fact that we are no longer just sharing through our networks cloud the nature of collaboration?  Or does the minimal dollar amount automatically take that off the table?  Some may not see the harm in paying an iTunes-equivalent fee for a great stock lesson on Beowulf, but the cumulative effect could be much greater.

Where I am with this as I right this in a wholly new direction, however.  Could this be the beginning of freelance teaching?  a return to the time when a teacher found a good spot in the center of town and hung up a sign that said “Great knowledge here.  Be enlightened for small fee?”  This sounds odd, yes, but think of how easy it is to set up an online portal that tracks student progress, provides immediate feedback, exposes their work to a global audience, and allows for real-time collaboration and communication.  It’s something we all might be able to create with a web server, a good friend who can code and will work for food and beer, and a little marketing savvy.  Is this the future of learning as we know it?

We are still in the infancy of online learning and virtual schools, but as we see more teachers and schools embrace it, the shift may be for teachers to gather together and form their own schools this way, because, let’s face it, it’s not rocket science to set up these portals.  Also, how many teachers that you know truly believe there is a better way to do things than is being done in the schools they work in?  This might just be the way to create the schools they want to create, or at least one in which they have the locus of control.

Seth Godin has been quoted as saying the following:

If you think the fallout from the newspaper industry was dramatic, wait until you see what happens in education.

Could this be what he was talking about?

Late edit to this post:  Larry Cuban has an excellent view on the call for technology to change schools that fits nicely with this post here.

Deaf Ears

I went to a conference two weeks ago, and I am still sitting on my “what I learned at (insert conference name here)” post.  It’s not that I didn’t take anything away that is worth squawking about, nor that I haven’t the time to write about it, because, let’s face it, so few of us do anymore.  It’s rather that I’ve been trying to find the way to say it without ruffling the feathers of those who put on conferences all over.

There shouldn’t be any educational technology conferences anymore.

Oh great.  Now it’s out there.  There goes any chance I ever had at presenting at ISTE (or NECC, or whatever it’s next iteration will be).

While I truly love the conference I am speaking of, being that the first time I attended was one of the biggest eye-opening events of my career a few years back, something has changed around the world of education and educational conferences.   What’s changed is not the technology–that’s a given.  What’s changed is that we now ask different questions than we did before. The more “Ed Tech” conferences I attend, the  more I see people there who don’t need to be there.  If we are talking about real change in education, the kind that makes nervous people of those with big jobs in big companies that depend on education as a market, than we’ve got to get different people here.

Instead of the word technology or educational technology being mentioned anywhere in the nomenclature of the conference, why don’t we focus on student learning.

If you can’t show me (preferably with live students) how what you are talking about is credible, gets kids excited to learn, and allows them to share their learning with whomever wants to be a part of it, I don’t know if I am interested.

I know this has been said before, and many times here in this space, but it’s not teaching with technology, or learning with technology, or educational technology.  It’s just teaching, just learning, and just education.  It’s here, it’s your computer connected to the world, and it makes your job easier.  And if  the educational technologist in your district would just let you know about these conferences, it might just become very clear to you.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that these conferences need to recognize the fact that we moved beyond just inviting directors of technology, technology coordinators, or higher-level administrators, but rather classroom teachers, students, and even community stakeholders.


These things we call relationships, they are funny things when it comes to our professional lives.  Regardless of what field you are in, you started in that field somewhere.  Depending on where you are now in said field, there are those who you started with in certain positions that either still hold those positions, or have moved on to other responsibilities.  It’s just the nature of what we do, whether that be public sector or private sector.

brain bombs

How you handle that relationship matters a whole lot to your success.

Or does it?

I just wrote this in response to a teacher who reacted to an article I sent out to her department entitled “7 Bad Writing Habits You Learned in School:”

That’s precisely the question I want everyone thinking about. We truly focus so much of our energies on getting the format down and getting the “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed, and for many of the students we teach, that is completely necessary; however, as we begin to look at the next phase of what we’d like to do in the district which includes more than just being “proficient” on some state test, can we blend some of the thinking in this post into what we are doing.

And as for making people angry, my advice is that you don’t get the results you really want without making a few people angry along the way. Not that you try to, but when you know that what you are doing will make your students better, you just go with it.

She was asking whether or not it was all right to go forward with some of the ideas in the article, even if it angered some of her colleagues.  My response can be boiled down to very few words: “hell yes.”

We don’t propagate change in systems unless we are ready to have battles that we know will end up with feelings being hurt.  This is a fact that I am still warming to, as it is very contrary to my personality, and since I am creating change at the curriculum level in a district in which I originally taught.  When I think of the alternative, though, I can use that to gather the strength necessary to move forward with the type of thinking that will lead to the schools we need.

Yes, we can create change without alienating everyone on the bus, but there are times when we need to be strong enough in our convictions to say “yes, your voice has been heard and your input factored into the decision, but we need to move forward with this decision.”  Or, more simply, this is how we have decided it has to be done.  In no circumstances would I advocate a lack of explanation behind the decision, nor sound research supporting that decision.  When moving schools forward, we must always ask ourselves, regardless of the position we hold within that school, “does this help/hurt kids.”  Once we have that determined, the rest falls into place.

Image Credit: “Invasion/Relation” from colinwhite’s photostream

Worst Presenter Ever

It’s now a few days since my presentation at TechForum Northeast, and judging by the lack of hate-mail or the searches I’ve conducted on all the available backchannels, I didn’t offend anyone too greatly.  Although, by traditional standards, I may just be the worst presenter ever.

I have to admit, and I did so to open the session, presenting at EduCon has changed the way I view conferences. The format asked for at EduCon, from the start, has been conversational; the standard role of presenter is completely changed to that of facilitator, and that changes the way you prepare. Personally, it becomes a situation in which I completely invert the presenter-presentee experience.  Instead of pursuing the traditional “I speak, you listen” model, the ruling ethos has become

The smartest person in the room, is the room.

David Weinberger

As I have prepared for the last few presentations I have given I am forced to keep asking the same question: How do you get a group of concerned educators together in a room and just deliver the message are asked to  deliver without turning them loose on one another?

Very simply, you don’t.

You ask pointed questions, and then listen, and listen very closely to what they say.

Think about where you are when you give a presentation, or view a presenter at a conference.  You are in the company of many passionate educators, those passionate enough to travel a distance to learn more about their craft, and most likely lose class time with their students.  Who holds the knowledge in that situation?  The speaker?  perhaps.  But what I am banking on when I present, and this may cancel every proposal I submit over the next few months, is that the best information you will gain from being at a conference is from the people who are there attending alongside you.

That is not to say that I have no role in the learning that goes on in these presentations.  There had to have been something in the idea I had in pitching the presentation in the first place, and there had to be some direction in which I intended the pretty slides I prepared to move in, right?

But would I have ditched all of it to have a great conversation about how to make the schools we work in into the schools we want to work in?  You bet.  My role for them was to put in place the interaction pieces so that they could construct something of value for themselves.

This model should sound familiar…but does it?

Image credits:

“January 25th 2008 – The word for the day is “knowledge”, pass it on,” Stephen Poff

“The Seven Principles of Learning,” dkuropatwa’s set on Flickr

A Quick Story of Shift

We have a problem in our district that most of you probably have: we do not have enough teachers to do what we really want to do.  We have classes we’d like to make smaller, classes we’d like to offer more sections of, classes that we dream of creating, and classes that we used to offer that we can no longer staff.

This year, the issue arose with our 5th grade Introduction to World Languages program.  Due to schedule changes at both our high school and middle school, the teachers that had in the past traveled to 5th grade from those two buildings to introduce the students to four additional languages they can study at the 6-12 level (they have Spanish from K-4th grades) could no longer travel as the times they are available didn’t match up to the elementary schedules.

We’ve spent the better part of the last two years increasing the minutes that our students spend learning languages in the middle and high school, and to do that we moved the Introductory program to the 5th grade thereby having our 6th graders choose a language to study for their middle school years.  Eliminating it was not an option, but realistically nothing was working out for us.

Last year, I reluctantly met with a sales rep from Rosetta Stone.  I am not big on proprietary software systems like Rosetta Stone; I find them cumbersome most of the time, but this one was different for a few reasons.  First, it reminded me of how the Florida Virtual School worked in that there is the element of individual pacing, and secondly that it may work for students who don’t traditionally perform well within the classroom.  I saw potential for its use all over the district.  After that meeting, I eagerly brought the demo back to a few members of the department to see what they thought of it.  Most dismissed it outright, but some were intrigued, so the idea got put on the back burner.

When our scheduling issues came to a head this summer and it was made clear that we could either move the Introductory program back to the middle school and steal a year away from the focused study of one language, or find a solution that would allow the students to experience the four languages before making a decision to study one further in middle school, out came Rosetta Stone once again.

This past Tuesday, I worked with the four teachers from our department (Russian, German, Mandarin, and French) to create custom curriculum within our web-based launch of Rosetta Stone.  Some of these teachers were among those that initially balked at the idea, so I was interested to see what their reaction was once they were immersed in it.  Their task was to be a student and go through as much of level 1 as possible, then change hats and become the designers of that curriculum.  Rosetta Stone allows you to modify their existing curriculum for their languages, or create your own curriculum entirely.

Their reaction?  Let’s just say it’s going to be hard pressed to keep our licensing agreement intact–they want to use it in the other schools they teach in.  They loved the idea that they could create rich, dynamic curriculum and learning environments for students and get accurate, timely feedback on their progress.  Plus, each of our students is going to be able to progress through the languages at their own pace, and on their own time.  Due to the time constraints that our school day places on language learning in 5th grade, which only allows for 35 minutes per week, these students are going to be asked to work on these languages outside of school.   Having access to their learning via the web goes a long way toward respecting the time of the students.

I am not affiliated with Rosetta Stone, nor do I think it’s a perfect product; however, what I do think of when I see our teachers working in this environment is a glimpse into what schools can look like in any subject area when quality learning environments are created both online and off.  What I am finding in working with more and more teachers on projects like this that change the perceptions of teachers and traditional learning is that what we all can agree on are the elements of that need to be in place for learning to happen.  Whether or not those elements look exactly like what we’ve all grown up with is not important to most.