Buzz Books

(A version of this post appears at HBWReads under a different title.  Feel free to check it out here)
In April, I wrote about a project we began in Verona regarding summer reading, and described it as an attempt to make reading viral within our middle school.  The post, titled “Making Reading Viral,” detailed what was then an idea about how to create buzz around the titles we were recommending for the summer.The project began in earnest on June 27th, and we are now a month in.  Some brief stats on the site so far:Our middle school has a population of less than 700 students, and our town roughly 14,000 people.  Students and teachers write on their assigned days, with some mixing and matching going on.  It’s been a pleasure to administer the site and organize their work.

On Tuesday, August 2nd, I have the privilege of speaking at #140edu: Exploring the State of Education NOW Conference at the 92nd Street Y, NY, NY.  My topic: The Buzz Books.

A while back, I was asked by the conference founder, Jeff Pulver, to participate in this conference, and if so, what did I have in mind to talk about.  Immediately, I thought of the Buzz Books and the HBWReads blog.  Reading, to me, has been a difference-maker in my life, taking me from a place of shadows and ignorance, to one of luminosity and understanding.

Scholars have recently been examining the state of reading today among the general population of children in grades 5-12, and thestatistics coming out of their work paint an awful picture.  There are extreme ramifications upon our society if we raise a generation of non-readers.  So, we as a district, looked at what we thought of reading in general, and more specifically of summer reading.  We looked at reading phenomena like the Harry Potter books, the Twilight Series, and more recently, the Hunger Games trilogy.

We saw something there that caught our eye.

Reading is a social endeavor, and it’s done best when we can talk about books with people we have an interest in.  When we read a book that is outstanding, the first thing we want to do is to run and tell someone who matters to us all about it and recommend it to them.  We wanted to capture that somehow.

When I get on stage on Monday, I’m going to talk about that idea, but I am also going to talk about the work that has been done by all of the students and teachers at HBWReads so far this summer.  Looking back at the statistics I shared the other day, we have had wild success in terms of readers and traffic through our site.  We have had conversations around books that would not have otherwise occurred.  We are making reading viral, and helping to spread it through not only our community here in Verona, but also in other parts of the county and world.  Don’t underestimate the power of that.

The conference will be live on the web, and as soon as the information is posted as to how to tune in, I’ll pass it along here. (Here is the Ustream address if you are interested in catching the conference.  I go on roughly at 11:45am)



Yesterday, one of my staff invited me in to talk to her junior Honors United States History II students about how to be more efficient and effective with their internet searching, and with their time in front of a computer screen in general. To begin the discussion, I showed them this quick clip:

I wanted to help them see that there are other options than Google and Wikipedia, but also how to work within those two frequent web destinations for students. Among the alternates to Google I showed them was something called Sweet Search. This site uses a system of web guides around various topics to help students narrow the web to the areas they need instead of searching the entire web. They have guides on everything from Family Travel to High School Geometry. Additionally, we looked at some history specific sites like George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, the State Department’s Background Notes, University of Houston’s Digital History, and news aggregators like 10×10.


However, as great as some of the students thought these sites were, the techniques we use to find information once there, and then determine the credibility of that information are most important. We discussed some basic tips on how to streamline and focus your search so that the likelihood that relevant results appear is increased. We used these two guides:

By using limiters like putting search phrases in “quotes,” or limiting results only to .edu sites (site:edu “search term”) students began to see that the results they got were of high quality than just regular searching.


We also showed them some of the guiding principles behind Wikipedia. As a resource, Wikipedia has often been vilified by educators at both the university and high school level because of the supposed unreliability of the information. Because of how search engines work, the links into and out of a Wikipedia entry cause it to be at or near the top of a typical Google search. What I tried to stress with the students was the value of Wikipedia stems from the basic rule of editing an entry: you have to validate your information with credible sources, and then list those sources at the bottom of the entry. By beginning with the “works cited” list in a Wikipedia entry, you gain access to a pre-made bibliography to begin your research on a particular topic. Don’t end your research with Wikipedia, start there.

Evaluating Research

While we didn’t have time to dive deeply into how to interrogate the web to figure out if information is credible, we did explore a few sites that help decipher which media outlet is telling the truth., and offer some compelling research into what Congress, the mainstream media, and even some celebrity pundits claim. By checking in on those sites and attempting verify claims, students can begin to build a better radar when it comes to the verity of a source.

Eliminating Distractions

One element that students often claim gets in their way is the amount of distractions they have in their lives in the way of social media–things like Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or BBM. Even adults are beginning to see how distracted these elements of our lives can cause us to be. To combat it, I showed the students how to use browser plug-ins like Readability to strip the extra content like ads and videos from a page they are reading on the internet. We also looked at things like quietube and Turn the Lights Out to eliminate distractions while they watch video on their computers. I also referenced this article, which has helped me reclaim my attention span.

Yet Another Option for Readers

Yes, we have so many options these days as readers, not just in the types of material to read, but how we actually view the text.  In a conversation with a student today regarding the design of our media center, he plainly said:

“Look, I like books and all, but that’s just not how I read anymore.  If I want to read something, I always pull up a chair and go on the internet.”

Regardless of our emotions surrounding physical books, we must begin to adapt our teaching and our reading expectations to where the students are.  Let me clarify that a bit:

  • I do feel there will always be a need for paper-bound materials in schools and in life.  There is some sense of permanence, of romance for lack of a better term, in them.
  • I think the immediate future will see a mix of digital and paper-bound books, and, for schools, that is going to be a messy time.  We are so paper-heavy still, and any transition the other way will clearly have some growing pains.
  • Reading, truly and deeply, can be done on a variety of surfaces.

All that said, I’ve been doing some digging into ways to get more text in front of our students.  Here’s one from, of all places, the iTunes Store, that I think is completely under-utilized.

Additionally, check out Google eBooks for their collection of classics in the public domain.  I spent some time the other night cross-checking our lists of titles in our curriculum at the high school level with Google and iTunes U and found a surprisingly high number between the two sites.  That bodes well for students who simply struggle to read texts at the level of complexity of the books in the canon.

Is there a solution right before us?

Warning: somewhat of a tech bend to this post.

Last week, while I was on vacation we had a huge server meltdown.  While I am not an IT guy, I do understand some of the implications of what that means.  For example, our student information system (a great little product called Genesis), our wireless Internet radios, our Moodle courses, and many of our other essential services experienced outages that slowed workplace productivity to a crawl.  While it was a great week to be on vacation, it did bring to light some very glaring issues.

Jim Moulton, over at The Future of Education is Here, writes about a March article in eSchoolnews that cited:

Only 31 percent of respondents said their districts have enough IT staff to satisfy their needs; that’s up only marginally from 27 percent in last year’s survey. And 55 percent of those polled–the same percentage as last year–said they spend more than half their time reacting to technical problems, instead of working proactively on long-range planning and projects.

IT staffs in schools are traditionally understaffed.  In most districts I’ve been in, the ratios between number of IT staff and machines to service, not to mention servers and systems, is outrageous.  When issues like the one we ran into last week occur, an overworked staff becomes increasingly stressed.

Last October at TechForum Northeast, I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel with David Warlick in which we discussed some hurdles to implementation of new thinking in schools.  One teacher from the audience lamented, much as Jim did in his post, that the tech staff in his building are guarded and unwilling to allow for teachers to experiment with open-source technologies for fear of corruption to the network.  If, this audience member suggested, teachers are expected to push the limit on what they can have students achieving in the classroom, should they be constrained by an IT staff that does not have the best interest of the students in mind?

It’s an interesting dichotomy, the students v. IT staff one, isn’t it?  On the one hand we have students who are growing up in a world where 11-year olds make huge profits by designing iPhone apps, and on the other we have them working in school environments that can’t give them access to the types of tools that would let them create such apps.

At the tale end of Jim’s post, he presents a solution, one that I have heard via Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez in the past: give the students the ability to aid the IT department.  We are not talking giving them access to the firewall, or the major components of the infrastructure, but rather allow them to handle basic repairs, quick imaging and system setups so that the IT staff can begin doing some of their own imaginative work.

Be sure to check out her list of GenYes Schools where this solution is actually in place.

What are the Characteristics of Excellent Student Writing?

Excellent Work.002This is a question I have struggled with for a while, ever since I began teaching in public schools.  What are the elements that are consistent among writing we deem excellent by our students?  I think finding the answer to this question is essential for a group of teachers working as a team, as a school, or as a department.  It’s important to have a common language among the group as to what qualities students must strive for.

This week, I met with a group of teachers who will be teaching our Connections class next year.  Aside from brainstorming about the overall success and failure of the class, we also began the process of identifying what we think are the characteristics of excellent student writing. What I asked them to do over the summer is to work on getting more concrete definitions to the list they came up with .  What I ask of those that read this is to think about the characteristics we came up with and tell us if you think we are right on, or way off.  What makes work from students stand out above the rest?

Our list:

  • Risky:
  • Aimed at an Audience:
  • Follows directions/Addresses task at hand:
  • Has definite organization:
  • Evidence of revision/meta-cognition:
  • Connected to other, prior knowledge:
  • Has Original Voice:

In the wake of our President’s latest address to the American people, I found this via an email from a friend.  It’s hard to forget how we all felt at that point in our lives at the moment when we were about to enter into what we felt was the real world: life after high school.  To be making that leap at this point in history is especially harrowing, and you can hear that in the voices of these bright young students from California.  Something tells me these kids have a good chance of making that leap.

Prove It.

I’ll admit it: I just watched my own session from EduCon 2.1 on video.  Granted it’s not the whole thing, but it’s enough.

I didn’t know whether to take the athlete track or the celebrity track here: athletes do it without question, while celebs, when asked, never admit to watching their own movies.  When it came down to it, I decided that watching would be so much easier to stomach than knowing it was out there and neglecting the chance to reflect on the session.  Tony Gwynn used to do this for every at bat. Why can’t I?

After EduCon 2.0 last year, Dan and I came back a bit overblown by the whole thing.  We knew what we were walking into, but sensing the passion the presenters had and the depths to which many of these people were willing to reach to change public schooling made us really reflect on what we were doing.  What we heard was that “top-down” change was not enough.  Grass-roots change had to happen in order for systemic change to sustain itself.  We took that back and tried to make it happen through our actions.

That idea, that change had to be a marriage between administrative direction and teacher action, received yet another tweak as we learned through the weekend of January 23-25 that the student element was missing from our curriculum redesign process.  We took our two major redesigns last year, Technology Career, and Consumer Sciences and our critical thinking class called Connections, and put them through the ringer with what we had learned from the sessions we had attended at EduCon 2.0.  Now, a year later the idea that we haven’t included students to the level we need to is chasing me around as I plan to work with Visual and Performing Arts as they re-make their curriculum this summer.  What’s their role?  How much input should the greatest source of human capital in a school district have on the creation of curriculum? It’s no longer just a “top-down/bottom-up” issue, but instead it’s a “who should be in the room” issue.

Although he didn’t appear in the video of our session, Chris Lehmann popped into our session for the opening discussion.  I’ll attribute these words to him:

“If we say that we believe in something, we should point toward something in your schools that show, illustrate those values, those beliefs (and how they resonate in the school community)”

And, although he didn’t say it officially until Sunday, he implied it all weekend: if you believe in something, show me where your actions, your systems, and your decisions make it true.  We are at a point in our discussion and our study of what we know about about what works in education that we should be able to show in our own practice as educators what we are doing in light of our beliefs.  That works for everyone from superintendents to students themselves.  What are your ideals?  Where can you show me in your practice that these are reflected?  When we look at the inclusion of students in the curriculum redesign process, how does it reflect our beliefs about learning? About the students we teach?

New Voice, For Me at Least

Today I have been searching for subject area teachers who use twitter, especially those who teach in the disciplines I am concerned with.  In doing so, I came across Brad Ovenell-Carter, who teaches in British Columbia.  His remix of Will Farren’s graphics from his “Insulat-Ed” post is fantastic.  Below is a copy of the message I sent to my Connections teachers:

Hope you all are preparing for a great New Year’s Eve Celebration.  I wanted to pass this along to all of you to see what you make of it:


  • What is networked learning?
  • How can we help our student create their own networks?

Over the last year or so, the network I have set up teaches me more and leads me in more interesting directions than I ever could have found on my own.  It’ not just about resources and websites, but rather ideas and learning when I want, and where I want.  Our students deserve this.  You deserve this.

Image Credit: Brad Ovenell-Carter


Regardless of your spiritual persuasion, it is difficult to deny the serendipitous nature of life as it affirms you at just the right moments. Entering what I view as one of the most pivotal stretches of my career, albeit still abbreviated, doubts and some other scions of stress have been creeping into my mind lately. Is this the right decision? Can this be done without alienating some of the stakeholders? I am struggling with questions that don’t have exact answers.

Then this email arrives on Sunday from a former student of mine, who is now a senior in high school. Granted, since I’ve jumped around in the last few years, I don’t get many of these, so some of you might find this commonplace, but for me it landed in my inbox at the most opportune moment.

I actually am writing to thank you, because it was your class that showed me
what I want to do with the rest of my life. If you remember we did a huge unit
on human rights and the Burmese conflict. Ever since then my eyes have been
opened to the world. I’ve developed a passion for human rights and developing
countries and just plain helping people. I’m graduating this year, and in the
fall I will be enrolled at The University of Chicago as an International Studies
and Arabic double major (and a softball pitcher). One day I want to work in the
field of economic development and human rights. I’d want to work in Southeast
Asia (the Arabic is just because I love languages—I take French, Spanish and
Latin in school) and also join the Peace Corps. I hope to one day help further
the peoples’ struggle for democracy in Burma and similar conflicts all over the
world, anyway I can. In fact, this summer I’m going to Thailand, Cambodia and
China to volunteer at refugee camps, schools and orphanages. I’m very excited
since for four weeks I’ll primarily be working with Burmese refugees on the
Thai-Burmese border. Last summer I went and worked in Thailand for two weeks; it
is the most beautiful and peaceful place I have ever been. So basically, I
wanted to let you know that you were my favorite teacher ever and that you’ve
really made a difference in at least my life and indirectly made a difference in
the lives of those people you’ve convinced me I need to help and hopefully will
succeed in helping. Supposedly teachers like to hear that sort of thing, so I
thought I’d track you down and let you know.

Often we forget role we play in the lives of students, and the wonderful thing about them is that they often don’t forget that role. I couldn’t be more proud of this student, and after reading this letter. Proud that she’s looking at her future as a connected and global undertaking; she’s looking “big-picture,” and proud that I had the ability to be a part of her growth as a learner.

At the same time that the US News and World Report released their claim that teaching is one of America’s most overrated careers, we need more discussion of the intangibles that separate what we do from any other career.

Image Credit: “Global Warming,” from chatirygirl’s photostream

The Moments Never Announce Themselves, They Just Arrive


I am not a principal. I don’t run a school. I don’t monitor if you sign in or not. I develop curriculum and help teachers hone their methodology. It’s what I love to do. But I also found out over the last three days, I lead people too.
For the last few weeks, there has been a growing disconnect between the staff I work with and myself. I am new; my position was just created as of December 1st, but I have worked with this staff in other capacities for almost 5 years. Something was afoot, something palpable, an undercurrent of discontent that showed itself in subtle ways.
Then the fences went up.
We are beginning a three-year construction process (if we are lucky and the construction management Gods smile upon us), and the initial steps to begin destruction of buildings not in the redesign were taken last week. While the exuberance of teaching in a state-of-the-art building appeals to all of the staff, the reality of the three or so years leading up to it hadn’t shown its forlorn self until those fences appeared.
When I was in the classroom, I lead students by example. My passion was my greatest weapon, and the stories we shared together about the history of the world enveloped us all. As I migrated into staff development I relied on the same practice; it was a passionate relationship with the possibilities that technology and new pedagogy opened for me. It, too, infected those around me. Leading people was so much more about the “hey, look what I am doing. I’ll show you so you can do it too.” And it worked because it was a suggestion to a colleague.
What changed when I entered administration, and I don’t know whether it was a preparatory change I made sub-consciously or a change that was overt, was that method of leading by doing no longer was seen as suggestion, but mandate. Although I still felt like a colleague, acted like a colleague, and contributed to the development of ideas, it was no longer taken as collegial, but rather a directive.
Prior to this past week, I had been contacted by a few of the teachers in the departments that I oversee about the climate of the building in which they work. The general feeling was that the morale was extremely low, that teachers were not happy, that they had no voice and no support on issues that are essential to their ability to do their job. Decisions were made that affected their classrooms and they were being told about it after the fact. The top-down approach they were seeing was not helping them feel as if they had a stake in the future of our school.
My plan originally was to address the individuals who spoke with me and assess the situation in a one-to-one conversation. By the time our department meetings rolled around this week, it became clear that what we had was something close to revolution. Our agenda for this week was to have each department meet for 3 hours a day during the HSPA Testing and work on curricular issues. Each department would have 6 hours over the two days to examine their curriculum, methods and resources. That’s a lot to ask of an unhappy group. We have a professional staff and they worked brilliantly to revise and add resources to their curriculum. It was in these meetings over the course of three days that I learned something valuable about leadership.
The English Department came in on Tuesday and on Thursday faced with re-writing their research process due to the fact that our Media Center will not be a Media Center next year, but most likely become classroom space due to rooms lost to reconstruction. Our goal was to analyze what we wanted our students to do with the resources we did have left. As they progressed through the morning, I noticed that they worked hard, they were knowledgeable about what they taught and they cared deeply about doing it well. Something was missing.
A lot of the conversations in the blogosphere are about making students feel like what they are doing has a point in the real world. Meaning is a bigger issue than information. I agree with that, but I agree with that for teachers as well. On Thursday morning, I had planned to do all of this crazy tech stuff with the teachers: Google Docs, Notestar, Google Earth, etc. ad nauseum. On Wednesday afternoon, after meeting with one of the members of the department, I decided to throw all of that aside.
I gave them a copy of my image for the Passion Quilt Meme, and talked about the things I was passionate about in education. I asked them to list the things that made them become English teachers. What were there passions? And we talked about them, we agreed on things, we stole each other’s ideas, we learned about one another, and we laughed with one another. Then I asked them to take those passions and describe how they would want to pass them along to their students. Who do they want entering the world after they graduate? Our results connected us by way of our common and disparate ideas for our students.


I feel like most of the meaningful moments in my career are accidental; that I have no control over when my greatest lessons are going to be learned. This is what happened to me yesterday. I learned to be a leader, and I learned to do it by listening to people tell me what they want, and then helping them get there. Yesterday told me that leadership is not always about gaining control of situations, but giving it over to the people that need it.

I listened, of course, but then I let them act.

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Flickr image credits: “Flat” and “Heirarchy” from timabbott’s photostream