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.

 

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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.

Give Me Something That Matters

In November of 2007, I found myself in the audience at TechForum, wondering what I’d gotten myself into as I had just recently taken the position of technology coordinator in the district I was working in at the time.  There were lots of things I did not know (I still hate you Adobe CS series) and I never felt like I knew the answers to the questions I was being asked.  Alan November was giving the keynote that day, and I’d not really heard of him much at all, only that people either loved him or hated him.  Needless to say, his message that day became a pivotal moment for me in that I really haven’t looked at education or learning the same way ever since.

Alan talked about ownership and outsourcing that day in regards to the work we do as teachers.  Essentially, teachers do too much of the work of learning, and students can and should do more of the work.  That work, however, had to be owned by them.

Yesterday, I revisited that moment with a group of teachers during the second of our spring TED Series when we showed Alan November’s “Who Owns the Learning?” talk from this year’s TEDxNYED.  Alan shared a few anecdotal stories from his past with the audience, none that I haven’t heard versions of, but it was clear to me that although his message hadn’t changed much, it was still holding its value now.

About five minutes into the opening activity, the room turned its eyes to the locked door, indicating to me that we had a late arriving participant, and upon first glance I was taken back.

It was a student.

I had opened all of my Spring workshops up to students this year, and I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t fully expect to be taken up on it.  She came in and introduced herself to those in the room that did not know who she was and from that point on became as much as contributor to the discussion as any of us.  In fact, there were several junctures where we all fully leaned on her as the expert on certain matters.  At one point, after we had watched the talk, she said what to me, has become some an obsession lately:

“I mean, I agree with everything he (November) is saying.  If you’d given me the choice in my last two years to work on something that I could select, that was my interest and passion, I’d work on that non-stop.”

Dumbstruck, I was.  Why hadn’t we done this sooner?  Why did I wait so long to invite these voices into the room?  Shame on me.

To that end, my thinking since yesterday has been on fire, with ideas and hopes and dreams pinned on this new vision of creating opportunities for meaningful work to take place in my schools.  During my run this morning, I was full of ideas to try out and to push out into this space for vetting and hashing out, all predicated on these things:

  • Tangible artifacts of learning: the things our students create should be usable by others, and should serve not only their passions but their communities as well.
  • Globally available: accessible by anyone, anywhere.
  • Lasting: we feel different when we know that the work we create will live on after we are gone.
In closing, during the beginning of the session yesterday, I asked the teachers in the room to quickly craft ideas for projects they would do if they were unfettered by the current curricular restraints.  They had to abide by the above three rules.  Here’s a brief sample of what we quickly crafted:
  • run a political campaign for a student to be in town office.
  • Feature magazine to include all aspects of creative culture within a school.
  • Architecture: designing your own schools.
  • Forms of communication: how did societies communicate with one another in the past and how did it evolve over time?
  • Special Ed students to leave a legacy behind to other special ed students.
  • Collect the oral histories of the residents of our town and feature them on the web.

I don’t know how many of these will come to fruition, but I know it’s important for us to have these ideas and let them breathe for a while.  I do know this, my goal is to help them grow legs within our current structures, and hope they help us morph our schools into what we think they should be.

Writing is Way Different Now.

There are about four tabs open in my browser right now that have to either with reading, being well-read, or books in some form, and each of them deserves it’s own space here. However, this just landed on my radar:

And now all of them seem a bit funny. When I think about writing now, I must think about the total package that comes with it. When I think about the writing my children will do (ages 6, 4, and 8mos) I can’t even begin to think of what they will create and how they will create it.

I’m floored. And I love it.

Already Talking Summer Reading…

*Update: Take the poll if you are interested in this topic!

No, not for my own edification.

The topic of summer reading/summer assignments is ramping up in my district, and with it thoughts on either side of the spectrum are piling up.  Some are steadfast in their belief that there should be structured, rigorous work done over the summer that students should be held accountable for when they walk in the doors in September.  This group, in my experience believes that the only way to combat summer brain-drain is through structured summer assignments and summer reading.  These beliefs fly in the face of the other side of this coin: those that believe the goal of summer reading should be to ignite and engage the students in reading that is unstructured, self-selected and fun.

I Love to Read, By Carlos Porto

Personally, I believe that, especially at the middle school level where students really begin checking out of reading for pleasure, we need to create structures that hook kids into reading, not scare them into it.  Now, in thinking this, I realize that is fairly “pie in the sky–” it’s one of those ideas that sounds great but loses all efficacy in the implementation.  It sounds great in theory, but what does it look like in practice?

So I am thinking about what we might do to create systems whereby students are excited to read on their own time, and one thing keeps popping up in my mind as a remnant of watching “The Social Network” over the weekend: community and exclusivity.  We want to know what the people we like are doing, and if the people we like are reading a particular book, we might want to know what they think of it.  With that in mind, I started brainstorming any decent idea I had about summer reading.  What I have so far is below:

  • Piloting an idea with a grade level before we go big.  Meaning that if we come up with something that is pretty out there in terms of allowing kids to choose and not holding them to the traditional accountability standards we have (quiz, essay, book report, project, etc.) we try it with a grade level this summer and see what the feedback from parents is.
  • The Hunger Games idea: I think our media specialist was onto something when she stated that when the Hunger Games series was freely available to large percentages of the kids (she purchased one-hundred copies via a grant), they read it because their friends were reading it.  Can we replicate that kind of social pressure around a book or series of books?
  • Choice with discussion groups: One of our teachers is doing something interesting with her kids using an online discussion board that is private to her kids (via Google Groups).  If we allow students to choose between several titles and assigned each title its own discussion group, we could create communities around each of the books over the summer.  Monitoring would be an issue.
  • Huge list of choices per grade and community promotions.  Ask local businesses to offer discounts to students or families who show up with their summer reading books (one from the list).
  • Figure out ways to create community around books the Barnes & Noble Way.  Staff picks, student-created book trailers filmed or read over the announcements, advertisements and posters around the school for summer-reading books.
  • One Book, One Town.  Everyone reads the same book in all grades (this may be tougher in Middle School where reading and maturity levels vary a bit more in grades 5-8 than in the high school).  In addition to reading the same book, we provide avenues for discussion groups to form at local businesses, the park, the library, etc. as well as online forums and groups.  The reading could culminate in a speaker series or at least a guest speaker who is an expert in an aspect of the chosen book.

I’m doing my best to gather input here for a meeting with all middle school language arts teachers on April 11th where we’ll run through this and see where they want to go.  If you or your school district does something meaningful with summer reading or summer assignments, I’d love to hear it.

Please Tell Me Where the Tipping Point Is.

In late October, I was fortunate enough to participate in TechLearning Magazine’s Northeast TechForum in Tarrytown, NY. This marked the fourth year that I’ve been associated with the conference either as an attendee or a presenter.  Each year tells me a dynamically different story about what is happening in our schools here in the Northeast.  Each year someone new comes into the conference and turns it on its ear in some capacity.

My presentation, Admin 2.0, was in the afternoon, which gave me all morning to catch up with friends and peek in on some of the sessions that were going on.  In each of the sessions, there was a recurrent theme among the crowd: their computers were really small, and a good percentage of the machines lacked full keyboards.  The proliferation of eReaders, smartphones, and iPads especially astounded me.  Later in the day, as I entered the room where I was slated to present, there they were again: iPads and Kindles, and small little machines stretched across the cloth-covered tables.

Had I missed something?  Was there an iPad tree in the lobby that I neglected to pluck?  Were my eyes deceiving me, clouded by geeklust for the latest gear from Cupertino?

Indeed, no shrub or gadget-crush was present, they were really everywhere.  I left the conference with a head full of steam to find out if the price had dropped or there was a deal to be had for educators.  What I found was not a price drop, nor an educator discount, but rather more information to add to the turmoil that’s been surrounding the real work I do in my district.

Publishing is upside down right now, in all forms.  Magazines and newspapers are struggling to remake themselves into viable options that readers and consumers still feel they need, and education publishers are beginning to feel that pinch as well.  In a recent article at Xplana, Rob Reynolds spoke about what he feels are “Nine Important Trends in the Evolution of Digital Textbooks and E-learning Content”

  • The increased disaggregation of content and the breaking up of the traditional textbook model
  • A proliferation of e-content and e-learning apps that support content disaggregation and new product models
  • A merging of the current rental market and the e-textbook market
  • A wide range of license/subscription models designed to respond to consumer demands around price and ownership
  • The growth of Open Education Resource (OER) repositories
  • The development of a common XML format for e-textbooks, shared by all publishers and educational technology players
  • The importance of devices and branded devices
  • The development of e-commerce and new product ecosystems that challenge the traditional college bookstore
  • A move from evolution to innovation and revolution

For those of us in K-12 education, the shift to eBooks or iPads or any straying from our traditional reliance on textbook publishers is cause for alarm–not in the sense that we don’t welcome them, but in the sense that we have budgets due (in New Jersey they are due really soon).  So what I want to know, and I want someone out on the internets to tell me is have I missed the tipping point?  When I look at the needs of my departments this year, should I be looking away from the reliance on paperbacks and textbooks, tradition be damned?  Or is it still too early?  If I really buy into what Reynolds is talking about, or what Lisa wrote about just a few days ago, why would I waste one more taxpayer dollar on a medium that will soon be outplayed by really, I mean really, inexpensive technology and distribution systems?

This situation, as I’ve described it, leaves a lot to be considered in terms of both the physical infrastructure (is your building equipped with universal wireless access for students and faculty to download all of these snazzy eBooks and apps), and intellectual infrastructure (is your staff and school community ready to take the leap into what many traditionalists–look at the comments on Lisa’s last post–would believe is the great demise of the American attention span).

Just for giggles, before I sat down to write this initial idea down after TechForum, I called up Cushing Academy.  Remember them?  The private school that cleared out much of its book collection in its library in favor of Kindles? A few quick stats:

  • 100 Kindles available to students
  • only three ever gave them issues and had to be sent back
  • they can’t keep them out of the hands of students
  • titles are constantly added via multiple school-based Amazon accounts
  • they don’t regret the decision (at least the librarian I spoke to).

Something to think about as we all build our budgets–is it time to make the switch?

Image Credit: http://i.imgur.com/IVA1N.jpg

Lesson Learned

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Mark Twain

Last week, I wrote a post in which I described the goals of what I had tried to do in a workshop at NYSCATE’s Leadership Summit.  In describing it, I used a few images to help, as well as a description of the goals.

In the comments, you’ll notice that a teacher from Iowa and South Dakota, Jerrid Kruse, took me to task for the language I used, or, retrospect, did not use, to frame the conversation in the post.  The seminar was about moving our colleagues, our schools and our students from what we know and are comfortable with in learning and teaching, to that which we don’t know, or rather that we do know, but are too paralyzed by our fears to move to.  What came through in the post, thanks to the image used, was somewhat short of that.  In looking back at it today, I realized two things:

  • Write without distraction.  I was following way too many ideas around and not focusing on my message.
  • Hit the mark with the language I use.  Be very precise with what I want to say, and how I want to say it.  Both of those elements were very loose in that last post.

Also, I get it–it’s an online space.  But it’s my online space, and for those that happen by here, I’d like what you read to be a reflection of me and my learning process.

Our Actions Say Otherwise

The study of world languages has been popping up quite often in the webosphere lately, and some of my colleagues have been extremely helpful in sending articles my way for review. The first article, which appeared recently in the New York Times, asked the question “Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?” Five notable authors take a crack at the question:

Some highlights:

from Susan Jacoby:

The situation is, needless to say, worse today as the recession has squeezed education at every level. But the utilitarian problem — we don’t have enough diplomats, spies and business people who know other languages — is rooted in the much larger dumbing down of the American concept of what it means to be an educated person.

from Ingrid Pufahl

In contrast, many U.S. elementary and middle school language programs only offer general exposure to languages but don’t expect proficiency. The only programs here that achieve high proficiency levels are immersion programs, where at least 50 percent of the school day is taught in a second language

from Bruce Fuller:

We must learn the language and engage them at a human scale as first steps in appreciating the strengths of East Asian cultures. These virtues already lift America’s best universities. Over half of Berkeley’s undergraduates are now of East Asian descent.

My initial response to the title was skeptical after having sat through some of our Mandarin classes and been in awe of what these students were doing, but in light of the fact that my view of language is much similar to most of my generations’ which is that of learning language through grammatical structure and conjugation, I think we have a fair shot at being successful in the near future. Dan Fost’s recent post in Edutopia regarding the benefits to the teaching of world language, quotes Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society describing the language learning experiences of past generations and how they affect our attitudes towards it now:

In fact, some of the greatest obstacles to world-language education are parents who recall their own miserable experiences. Many Americans were introduced to foreign languages in middle school or high school classes that emphasized conjugation of verbs and other dull grammatical tasks rather than relevant communication skills. “Language teaching in the U.S. has been ineffective,” Stewart says. “We start it at the wrong age. Teacher skills are not great. There’s a focus on grammar and translation.” The result: “Adults who took three years of French don’t speak a word,” she states.

That’s it. That perfectly describes the ways in which I was taught languages. Here in New Jersey, our World Language standards were entirely streamlined last year from three strands into one. The name of that strand–no it’s not conjugation–is Communication. So when I think back to my days in a Latin class or a Spanish class, I think of all of the grammar I learned, the cases and the tenses, and wonder why I can no longer recall any conversational bits, but only how to conjugate jugar in the present tense (yo juego, tú juegas, él juega, nosotros jugamos, vosotros jugáis, ellos juegan–so there). Our focus, in any language, should first and foremost be communication. To do that, as Fost points out, there are many ways to connect your students to native speakers that don’t involve a large parental bankroll and a passport. Let’s immerse our kids in the richness of another culture, because I feel that if we don’t do this for them, they won’t do it for themselves. Just ask ol’ Teddy Roosevelt about American attitudes towards other languages:

“We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language”

Mobile Phones, They Just Won’t Go Away

For the last few days, I have been party to three separate conversations about mobile phones and schools, and in the conversations, the only common denominators have been the shoulder shrugs that each conversation has ended in.
The use, or in some cases the possession of, a cellular phone in a classroom is often times a material disruption to the learning process.  Let’s face that right off the bat.  Yes, we can do some truly amazing things with any cellular phone within the classroom, but from a management situation, even those teachers who truly get it when it comes to relevance and utility of mobile computing are irked by students constantly turning their wrists or sliding their keypads out to check for texts.  And we cannot blame students for that either; what do most of us do at the precise moment our phone either rings, dings, buzzes or whispers?  We reach for it.  We are overridden with curiosity, not to answer it, but just to see who it trying to capture our attention.  Imagine what that feels like to an adolescent struggling with identity, peer acceptance, and societal norms?  Yeah, I am reaching for that phone too.
Those that I work with, a group of very forward thinking educators, often struggle with the use of mobile phones in the classroom for different reasons.  They tend to see it as a situation where there are other solutions that work better or just as good as would the use of a cellular device.  My thinking in these situations is always centered on trying to find that sweet spot, that activity or learning experience that could not be done better than if everyone was using their mobile device.  I don’t do this because I am some crusader for cell phones, but rather because I think they have leverage.  Paul Allison tweeted about writing with cell phones tonight after asking students to do some independent reading for thirty minutes and then check in via their cell phones:
I just love stopping and asking students to write with their phones. They have such a warm response, like “Oh, of course I can do that!”
For me then, it becomes clear where they have their use, and not for everyone, nor every situation.  But think about what Paul did with his students.  He didn’t ask them to interrupt the flow of their reading to take out pencil and paper and craft a response to a packet question, and he didn’t ask them to open up a laptop or move to a computer and find the discussion page on the wiki for that book and add an entry.  He asked them to do what they probably wanted to do anyway: send someone a text about what they were doing.
Flow.  Sense.
I don’t have the full details of what Paul was trying to carry out with his lesson, but if his intent was to engage students in reading and then have them reflect, then re-engage with the reading, doing it through that medium makes sense.
Our mindsets,  our infrastructure, and out pedagogy have a long way to move before we massively adapt to the use of cellular phones in classrooms, and I am beginning to see that its due mainly to our adult sensibilities about usage.  Our habits speak a different language, as we have very similar habits to our students, but our grip on how we should behave with cell phones is still strong.  Renny Gleeson, in his brief TED Talk, shows how we as a society have not yet normed our usages with our phones:

As we look at the inclusion (or as some would say, intrusion) of cell phones into our classrooms, we have to center on Gleeson’s point: are they making us more human?  Or, as Allison’s example more aptly shows, are they becoming invisible?

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.