The Annual Westchester Trip

Each October since 2007 I’ve made my way to TechForum Northeast for a day of learning and sharing with colleagues from all over the Tri-State Area.  In previous years, I’ve had the pleasure of learning from and with the likes of Alan November, Chris Lehman, David Jakes, Scott Meech, Kathy Schrock, Ryan Bretag, Diana Laufenberg, Lisa Nielsen–well, the list could go on.  

This year, I was fortunate enough to be the Keynote speaker to open the conference, an honor which I hope I lived up to.  However, aside from that experience, this year’s conference left me thinking about a great many things that I hope to spend some more time on the coming weeks.  Among them are a few below:

  • Jerry Crisci, the Director of Technology from the Scarsdale Public Schools, spoke about a project he began this year in Scarsdale called The Center for Innovation.  Sparked by his and his colleague’s interest in fostering a culture of innovation and thought-leadership and funded by the Board of Education, Jerry has created an ambitious agenda to get this project up and running.  In a conversation with him, he sparked what I hope is the seed of some future projects for me: his team, in the early stages of the Center, visited several places that were at the core of innovative practices like the MIT Media Lab and several startups in Silicon Alley in New York City.  This got me thinking of a great question to pose to teachers within my district: If we keep telling ourselves that we are preparing our students for the workplaces of tomorrow, do we know what workplaces currently look like?  If not, I think we should.
  • Pinterest has taken hold within the education community.  In a roundtable discussion after lunch, several of us talked about how we curate content for ourselves and for our colleagues, and pinterest really came out as the tool with the lowest entry point.  Russell Wray, (a wicked smart guy from West Windsor-Plainsboro) showed the group how they easily worked with a few teachers to create a few hashtags within pinterest that they easily aggregate through Flipboard on their iPads.  Genius!  
  • ifttt.com continues to blow me away with web-automation.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go check out the site and set up some recipes.  David Jakes showed us some outstanding recipes to use to make out workflow simplified.  
  • In that same roundtable, David asked a great question that has me thinking a great deal as well: at what point do we begin to expect students to curate for themselves?  When do we expect students to begin accumulating information in an organized form and keep it for ease of access for later use?  

I wanted to thank Judy Salpeter and the rest of the team at Techlearning for making this event happen yet again, and I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned and applying it to some of the projects I am working on currently.  

They See Us.

(This was the basis for my #140edu presentation called “They See Us” delivered on July 31, 2012 at the 92nd Street Y.  Slides for that presentation are found here)

My wife and I haven’t finished a conversation in nearly eight years.

What I mean is that the same conversations keep happening on a fairly regular basis–a sort of marital Groundhog day in which, our thoughts, still as profound as they were back when we first met, are never fully finished.  Rather, they are partly made then broken off as one or another emergency shrieks in from the outside:

  • Charlie poured the water from the tub into several of the small mini-Tupperware cups that Audrey set up for him on rim of the tub.
  • Parker got a bug lodged so far back in his eye that we actually couldn’t see it anymore.
  • Audrey hasn’t found the matching dance outfit and leggings to wear to the playground, because, everyone knows, and they really do, that you always wear leggings, a dance outfit, and rain-boots to the playground.  Sheesh, Dad.


We’ve practiced the art of relationship bookmarking–a highly adapted social skill in which you can pick up the fragments of interrupted conversations, often days later, and not have missed more than a few gist’s or so.  We have it down to an exact science.

Both of us being educators, our friends, parents and extended have some unique expectations for our kids.  They live with the stigma that they probably will do well in school because we are teachers and that they will love school because we obviously did. They also get the unique perks of having parents that are teachers: an odd love of stickers that smell or shine, the perpetual reliance on a 10-month calendar that no one else in the world above the age of 22 uses.

And we are hyper-aware of this, and our experience with our two oldest children and school has been rife with situations where we ask ourselves if the problem merits further looking into or whether it’s just a blip that the teacher shouldn’t be bothered with.

And it is those blips that began the stunted conversation that led to me being here.

It’s true that you are never the same once again as a person after having a child of your own.  I’m not here to argue that point.  What I do believe now is that after our children were born, our ideas about teaching changed.  It’s not as if having children suddenly opened up our empathetic pathways and we saw the light, but rather that certain things sharpened.

Our aspect ratio changed.

We realized we had some things to more consciously consider as we went back to our work as teachers.

Be present

We learned that we needed to be present when we were home.  We learned that the example we set in terms of our attention span and the gadgets that we have is of the utmost importance with our kids.

The same is true for the students we have.  We wanted to make sure our students feel like they have all of us, all the time.  There have been countless examples we remembered where a student wanted our attention and we just didn’t give it, or gave it with the most horrible body language.

We could see the message were sending when we were either plugged into our devices or too preoccupied with our own lives to be present in theirs, and we didn’t like it.  We are consciously aware of how much they matter and that what they say has value.

Be the teacher that you would want your child spending 45-40 hours a week with.

Both of us now work, and our kids are either in school or in childcare while we are there.  A typical day for us gives them a full eight hours in the care of another in one day.

Our children spend close to 25% of their week in the care of their teachers.

As we prepared for this, we really began to see how many of our students’ parents were in the same position.  How would that shape the work we did?

The time they spend with us has to be a time that is sacred, anticipated and adored.  Everything from the things we learn about to the space we learn in have to be designed with the idea that our job is to make them matter.  To make them love to learn and be with us.  Parents drop off their most prized possession every morning to us and say, “please take care of them and teach them,” and it’s our responsibility to to do just that.

Make the work matter

Parker, our seven-year-old, loves math.  Neither my wife nor I can figure out a) why he likes it so much, and b) where those tendencies stem from as not one of us can think our way out of a matrices or balance an equation to save our lives.  However, even he was struggling with measurement last year.  He muddled through that unit, with my wife and I being of whatever consolation we could, but did not truly grasp the concepts.

Then, in June, after school let out, our neighbor’s son learned from a cousin of his that you could make wallets out of duct tape, and he and Parker began asking if my wife if she could teach them how to do it.  Enter the world’s newest teaching tool–YouTube– and within minutes the three of them were on their way to learning how to make wallets out of duct tape.  But, each video stressed the need to be precise in the length of each piece of tape used to make the wallets.  Guess who learned measurement?

We both realized that the work we ask our students to do in school should at least make an effort at reaching kids where the duct tape wallets did for Parker.  Does it matter to them in a way that would push them to learn more about it on their own?

kids can see through it from a very early age.

Deliver the Goods

If you say you are going to do it, do it.  Nothing eats at me worse than when I make a promise to my kids that I don’t deliver on.  It doesn’t matter if the reason for not delivering is a natural disaster, seeing them disappointed is difficult to bear.

A wise colleague of mine told me when I arrived in a new district to spend the first year listening to the various constituents within that district and ask them what is one thing I could do to make their jobs easier.  Then, after listening, spend the next year trying to make that one thing happen for that group.

We need to be wary of the promises we make to children, because we as adults have learned that there is disappointment all around.  But the children we teach have not.  Let’s not be their first lesson in it.

 

Not the Drop-Off!

Bob: Hey, you’re doing pretty well for a first-timer.
Marlin: Well, you can’t hold on to them forever, can you?
Bill: You know I had a tough time when my oldest went out to the drop off.
Marlin: They’ve just got to grow up som – THE DROP OFF? THEY’RE GOING TO THE DROP OFF? WHAT ARE YOU, INSANE? WHY DON’T WE FRY THEM UP NOW AND SERVE THEM WITH CHIPS?

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve talked to teachers and students about what it is about reading that they love, hate, and, in some cases, run away from kicking and screaming.  Today during my session at the Pennsylvania State Librarians Association Annual Conference, we talked about this idea:

What are the reasons we begin to see students’ interest in school, especially reading, wane by the time they graduate high school?  Is it a natural disinclination towards school attributable to youth culture across time?  Are there other factors that contribute to this?  Does this happen everywhere?

The group in the session was incredible–from sharing their ideas about what the aim of summer reading (and reading instruction in general) is, to their willingness to share resources and provide examples of what they do with their students and staff, they were spot on, and made my presentation much richer.

So I asked them the question above, and they created this list:

  • We need better choices for our students
  • When students have jobs, sports, other activities, the time needed to read is a factor
  • When students are awash in reading for other academic pursuits, there’s no time for reading for leisure
  • it’s so not cool to read if you are a guy
  • we are competing for attention with other media
  • the responsibilities placed upon children who live below the poverty line.
  • lack of reading advocates and “cheerleaders” in their lives.
  • Our definition of what we consider “good reading” is too narrow, and we discourage students from reading things that appeal to them (newspapers, comic books, magazines)
  • The need to find books for students that they want to read (9th grade and up)

What can you add to this list?

Sew Like a Man

Recently, as part of a project I am working on, the following question was posed to me:

What does your ideal school or classroom look like?

My answer?

Imagine a traditional Wood Shop class in which each student arrives and begins working on a project he or she designed and created, rarely if ever disengaging from their work.  They all have a personal stake in the outcome of the project, they build it so that it will last beyond the time they are in this class, and they build it to be seen by more eyes than just their teachers.
Now take away the wood, the saws, the dust, and the nerdy goggles.  Place the student in a classroom that we might perceive as a history class, an English class, or a math or science class, but keep the elements of creating work that has legacy, personal purpose, and is publicly viewable.
The image above (I’ve appealed for leniency from the original authors), appeared as part of a presentation I did on Saturday at the first annual West Essex Tech Symposium, and came out of a classroom I observed a few weeks back, only it wasn’t woods, but sewing.  For days after the observation, I remained blown away by the way the class ran–and not as if the teacher was unnecessary, quite the opposite actually–and how the students were just locked in to what they were doing.
  • The work they were doing had value.
  • It mattered to them now.
  • It would be seen by more than just their teachers, but also their parents, their classmates, and quite possibly someone they met at the mall.
I couldn’t help but think about the classroom environment in a traditional siloed academic content area where this is taking place.  But is that possible?  If we create this type of environment–this messy, cross-disciplinary, creative, non-bubble tested idea-space–do academic departments then dissipate?  Some seem to think so, but I’ll cling for a bit to see if the creative capacities of our current teachers can rise to this type of challenge.

One Month in the Cloud

It’s been a month with the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook.  In late December, I made the move away from my Macbook and decided I’d test out whether or not I could use the cloud solely as a means to get my work done.  Granted, moving to an internet-only machine was a big leap, as I could have done it gradually via a regular machine.  Or was it?

To provide some backing to this, here’s a quick pro/con list:

Pros:

  • It works, mostly. I have some issues with the wireless network at my office, but other than that, it hangs in there really well.
  • Integration of all things Google. The ability to work within Google Docs seamlessly and create my file structure so that regardless of the machine I am on I can access my exact browser is amazing. I know you can do this with other non-Chromebook type machines through the browser, but this simplifies things.
  • Form factor. It’s lean, light, and solid–one of those machines you wouldn’t worry too much about dropping by accident.
  • Independence.  I’ve never been one to rely heavily on a “networked” machine, but this takes the cake.  The only reliance I had was to use the desktop machine in my office to set up the printer via Google Cloud Print.  Once that was done, I was able to live solely on the wireless within the buildings I work in.

Cons:

  • Hangs when I am really pushing it with open tabs. I’ve never been one to watch the CPU performance of a machine, but with this, I am aware of how many open tabs I am running. Which, when you think about it, is just good practice anyway–teaches me to bite off only what I plan to chew on in the short term.
  • Extensions cause more problems than they solve. Most of the crashes or hangups I have seem to be coming from extensions that hang up or just die.
  • Graphics chip. I use a larger monitor at work, and I love to extend my desktop. The graphics in the chromebook don’t allow for that, only mirroring.

After one month the pros definitely outweigh the cons.  This machine works exactly as I need it to, when I need it to.  I’ve presented from it, written from it, uploaded photos and videos, and asked it to do everything I need from a machine at this point.  True, video editing and anything requiring Java are not options, but in one month, the only time I needed to do either was to view a webinar, and in retrospect it really wasn’t worth it (are they ever?).

The next big step with these is to see how they roll out to staff and students.  Where do they fit?  Are they legitimate teacher machines?  Or are they a better fit for students?  Would love some feedback.

Battling One-Size-Fits-All

We’ve all been there.

It’s the annual or semi-annual professional day for staff, and you are dreading it.  What will I have to sit through this year?

We know it’s the wrong thing to do, to have the entire staff go through the same “training,” yet inevitably it happens.  What we know is that sustained, job-embedded professional events work.  We know that working with colleagues whose opinions we trust and feedback we value has lasting effect on our practice as teachers and leaders.

The problem lies in the design.  Why just one day?  Why make it “destination” PD, like we’ve arrived at this time of the year and it follows that we should have one day for “training?”

We’ve just completed ours, so these thoughts are fresh in my mind, and I am trying to think about what I’ll do differently going forward.

These days are not without merit, I should say, in that various groups that don’t often get to plan together can.  For example, world language teachers from various levels can gather together to discuss their program, and we can arrange the day to include FedEx type events.

But what if we could do this whole system much differently?  What if we could do it so that days like this are days where we spend time celebrating the work we’ve been doing all year as professionals?  If we embrace the PLC idea and model, can we use days like this to share the findings and work that we’ve spent the past year creating and researching?

Today, I was in charge of planning the day for the district, and I attempted to do that in a small way.  I asked several of the staff to share things they were “experts” in.  Here’s the list of choices that staff had:

Each staff member that was not involved in a curriculum project could choose three sessions to attend in the morning, and they had the option for the afternoon of these two sessions:

The Holy Grail of Teaching

Regardless of where you turn, the topic of education and educational reform seems tobe there. People from all walks of life are typically not shy about sharing their feelings on this subject. Ideas range from class size, standardized testing, ability grouping, the number of computers in the classroom, homework and the home environment, just to name a few. Research has shown, however, that teacher effectiveness has, by far, the most powerful influence upon students and student learning.In this workshop, we will explore the very powerful effects that a teacher has upon his/her students. We will take a close look at some of the research compiled that clearly delineates what has the most dramatic influence upon student achievement.

or
Learn Like Our Students Do

Background:  Have you ever seen a kid taking a technology class or reading a manual for a new gadget?  Of course not.  They learn as kids these days do: on their own, “playing”, and if needed, asking a buddy for advice. When it comes to technology or learning how to use new tools, they generally don’t need an “expert” or a workshop to attend.

Most adults are a little different. We have always had a consultant (“expert”) come in or have an administrator lead a session for staff on an initiative, program, or curriculum. Adults listen, hopefully engage, and it is hoped that the skill is applied for student learning.  Does it work?  Sometimes.

As we have for the past three years, we are call it “Learn Like Our Students” day. Staff otherwise unassigned to the previously listed activities form themselves into groups of two or more of their choosing. At the conclusion of the day they will complete an outcomes review.

Educators often say that there is never enough time to learn or improve skills, ideas, or instructional strategies.  Here is an opportunity for over two hours to teach yourselves something new, improve a skill, or gain new knowledge in a collaborative way.

While I cannot take credit for either of the two session titles or content (one was my predecessor’s idea, and the other my colleagues’), I feel both begin to drive our staff towards the type of day I would envision for them going forward.