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Friday, March 20, 2015

6 Things You Can Learn From Science Leadership Academy

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a little time at Science Leadership Academy, the inquiry/project-based learning school started by Chris Lehmann. Here are the top five things that stuck with me as I reflected about what makes this school so special. [Note: "special" is not just my opinion as evidenced by the fact that they have thousands of visitors come to see the school each year, receive over a thousand applications for the 120 openings for ninth grade and host educon, an annual learning conference that consistently draws the best and brightest thinkers and leaders in the world of education.]

These are things your school could should do, too. In no particular order...

1. A Common Language   
Everywhere you go at SLA, you know what's up. It's communicated in the posters on the walls, both in halls and classrooms. Three simple rules: Respect yourself, Respect...... As Jeremy Spry, our tour guide, put it, "Basically it comes down to 'Don't be jerk." 

I think that one of the most important things a school leader can do is infuse a school with a common language and value system. It is undeniable that Lehmann has done that at SLA. It doesn't mean that everyone has to teach the same way or that there is not room for individuality. It does mean that certain, important ideas, like norms of behavior and core values, are consistently communicated throughout the school. 




2. Kids Over Content                                                                                                                       
If you've read his blog or talked to Chris Lehmann you have heard him say that students should never be the implied object of their own education. In other words, it is clear that teachers are there to teach people. As Jeremy put it,
"Students don't need us for information. They have Google for that. They need us to take care of them, raise them in community, guide them."
I think that is beautiful and so essential to remember. Of course, I like teachers to also be passionate about the subjects they teach, but kids come first!

3. Technology Like Oxygen
Another famous "Lehman-ism" is that technology in schools should be like oxygen- necessary, invisible and ubiquitous. I'm not sure what else to say about this one except that sometimes this is easier said than done, but as a vision, it's the only reasonable choice.


4. School is Not to Prepare Kids for the Real World
I personally despise "schooliness" and think it is one of the most insidious blockers of evolving our education system to meet the real needs of learners. Even young teachers seem to have trouble envisioning a classroom or school environment different from the ones they encountered as students.
Schooliness to me equates with teacher-centered and passive. Students show up waiting to be told what to do. Teachers show up to tell students what and how to learn and "manage" behavior. Learning is low-level and closed-ended.
Why is this still the dominant culture in so many schools?
What I heard at SLA was this: We don't think of our job as preparing kids for the real world. We believe our students already live in the real world. We don't ban cell phones because cell phones and the distractions they provide are part of life.

5. Passion Matters!
Jeremy told us about the process by which students apply to become SLA freshmen. He said they receive over a thousand applications for around 120 open spots. Admission process is by interview, and interviews are open to anyone. The interviewee shares a learning project about which he or she is excited. What they are looking for is passionate learners. I compare this with high schools that base admissions on grades and test scores. Passion for learning is a much greater indicator of success. 

6. We All Like to Look
Art is a required course at SLA. Jeremy explained that visual literacy and design skills are not optional in today's digital world. I agree, and I still see many presenters, otherwise highly qualified, who use outdated slides that lack visual appeal or communication. It is obvious that SLA makes thoughtful decisions, based on what students need rather than what has always been considered important, when designing their curriculum. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Edu-Innovation is Becoming The Same Old Song & That's a Good Thing!


After I returned from last week's North American Jewish Day School Conference in Philadelphia, I felt, as I often feel after a high-energy conference, excited and overwhelmed.
The conference theme was "Uncommon Connections: Schools, Systems and Success" which referred to the idea of systems intelligence. As a big-picture thinker (who sometimes gets lost in the minutiae,) this theme really captured my attention and imagination. 

As I began to think about sharing my notes and thoughts, to reflect on what I learned and what I would do with that learning, I decided to try sketch-noting as a reflective practice. I am working on practicing this new way of making my thinking visible. I wonder if you can read my sketchnotes to understand my thinking. 



What stuck out in my mind was how overlapping and repetitive many of the themes were, or so it seemed to me. Not only am I starting to hear the same messages repeated (the same old song), but it appears that "everyone" is on-board. For example, instead of arguing against the "school should not be preparation for real life; school is real life" philosophy at SLA, it seems as if people agree completely. Of course, my observations are not scientific. There is no control group. The group who visited SLA chose to go to SLA. Does that make all the difference? 

Between the visit to SLA and Grant Lichtman's sessions on innovative schools (informed by the research from his book #Edjourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Innovation), I heard several recurring themes, outlined in my notes:
  • Abolish Schooliness
  • Passion Matters
  • Keep Kids First
  • Create a Culture of Learning
  • Create a Culture of Risk-Taking/Fail Forward

 These are the same thoughts about school innovation that I have also written about (over and over again in different ways) on my blog. These are the same thoughts about school innovation that those of us who have, in the words of Alec Couros, "walked through the same door on the Internet so we could think together" have been trying out in our own schools for years!

So....why are we still stuck? Lichtman's response to this question was, "Fear and inertia." I would add lack of imagination. So....how do we vaporize (or at least minimize) fear, inertia and the lack of imagination that keeps our schools stuck in a time-warp? 

My answer is this: we do it one step at a time. We ARE doing it. We keep on doing it. We educators look into our own hearts and minds and weed out our own fears. We stay connected. 
Someday soon, everything will be different, and no one will know how hard we fought to get there. And that, I believe, is how it should be. 

The Great "Just Jake" Book Giveaway + Interview

Jake Marcionette, the NYT bestselling author who wrote his first book, Just Jake, at age 12 emailed me to see if I would be interested in interviewing him and sharing a giveaway of his new book on Edtechworkshop. Of course, I emailed him back to say that no, I would not interview him, but my 5th grade students would love to interview him! Jake, now 14 years old, is excited for the publication of his second book, Just Jake #2 Dog Eat Dog, which will be released on March 31st.

Jake Marcionette
#2 Available March 31st

BOOK GIVEAWAY! Enter by March 21st! 

I am thrilled to be hosting a giveaway of Just Jake #1.
If you would like to enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this post before the end of the day on March 21st saying why you would like to have a copy of this book. Make sure to enter your email correctly because that is how I will contact you if you win. I will choose a winner on Sunday, March 22nd. Whether you are a kid looking for a funny read or a middle-grades teacher looking for a great book for your classroom library, you will want to have this book!

My class loved talking with Jake via Skype. He was so full of energy, telling us how he became a published author and talking to each student, individually, about his or her passions. The class also wrote interview questions for him, and here are his answers.

Where do you live now? What school do you go to?
I live in Saint Augustine and attend St. Johns County virtual school. It’s easier for me because I travel a lot speaking to schools and promoting my books.

You were only 12 years old when you wrote your first book. How did you get to be such a quality writer at such a young age?
Practice...Practice...Practice. Lucky for me, my mom “encouraged” me to write when I was younger - couldn’t go outside until I did. And from there it has definitely grown into my passion. Also, I had a great deal to write about. I went to five different schools in six years so during that time I met a ton of interesting kids and experienced a variety of classroom cultures.

Did you ever get frustrated when you were writing your book?
Sure. I think anyone who writes a lot experiences a certain level of frustration. Especially for me since I focus on writing humor/comedy. I want every joke to kill so I often go back and rework/edit until I’m happy with the end result.

Were you ever worried or nervous about the book and how it would turn out?
No, not really because in the end I was happy with the final manuscript. It felt right and I thought I delivered on my goal to write a piece of middle grade fiction for kids from a kid’s perspective.

How long did it take you to write your two books, Just Jake and Just Jake 2?
Each book took about 6 months to write, edit and submit a final copy. That might seem long but I’m also in school full time which tends to demand a lot of my time as well. Right now I’m super excited that Just Jake #2 Dog Eat Dog is being published March 31st so look for it on Amazon and in book stores.

Do you have any advice for a young writer?
Write about what you know. I look at what my sister used to read and I know I could never be successful writing about vampires, gossiping mean kids or mythical creatures because I don’t know anything about those things. I love to laugh and really love being a kid. So, Just Jake is about a bunch of 6th grade friends doing funny stuff in and around school. I was confident I could deliver on that front.

Do you have any advice for other kids who want to get their writing published?
Be persistent and get ready for rejection but don’t let rejection derail your dreams. Never give up.

Were there any authors that inspired you? Were you inspired by any of your friends or teachers?
You bet. I’ve been really lucky in having great teachers who answered all my questions (and there were lots) and took the time to help nurture me as a writer. Jeff Kinney is without question one of my major influences. I love the fact he is so real and doesn’t try to sugar coat it like some authors who write for kids.

What was your family's response when they found out your book made the New York Times Bestseller List?
They were so angry! Kidding! Actually, we couldn’t believe it. Everyone was shocked and for me it was a dream come true.

How many literary agents did you call until one agreed? How do literary agents work?
I called ten agents and got offers of representation from two of them and eventually decided that Dan Lazar from Writers House in New York City was the perfect fit. Agents are responsible for introducing their client’s manuscripts to publishing houses and negotiating publishing deals.

We watched a video of you on your blog. It was the one where you were on the news. You were talking about you trying to get a literary agent, and one person yelled at you. What did you feel then?
Yeah, that was so funny. One of the agents I called started screaming at me, saying “I was doing it all wrong...” and how “I need to know the rules”. She wasn’t happy. I was surprised by her reaction but it certainly didn’t prevent me from picking up the phone and calling others. Remember, you need to be fearless and determined.

How did writing these books affect your life? In a good or bad way?
I’m happy to report I’m still the same kid and all-in-all this experience has been nothing but positive. Writing is my passion so I love what I do. But it also provides me with a platform that affords me the opportunity to get out there and try to motivate other kids. I’m no different from any of you. I firmly believe that any kid is capable of achieving great things no matter what their age. You just need passion, a plan and relentless determination.

We are very impressed with the quality of your website. Did you build it yourself or did you pay someone else to build it?
Thank you! No, I didn’t have to pay anyone. My mom is a multimedia technologist. She is the founder of BigIQkids.com and she was happy to help me out with my site. Thanks Mom!!!! 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Is Being a Reader Genetic?

One of the best parts of learning in community is the spontaneous discussions. Yesterday, we wondered if being a reader is something we inherit from our parents through genetics. Since I have some strong ideas, myself, about how we become readers, I recorded the discussion on video.
You can also join our discussion. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Thinking About Reading from Andrea Hernandez on Vimeo.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Parent Connect: Reading Lives Vs. Reading Levels

These are the slides from a recent Parent Connect session I led with Karin Hallett. We use AR at our school as a tool to help us in our choice literacy efforts. AR is far from a perfect tool, but it is what we have, and I find that it does help me acquire data that parents want. The problem is that parents can become overly attached to the numbers AR and STAR Reading provide. As a teacher, I assess my students' reading growth in a wide variety of ways, these tools (AR, STAR) being only one piece of the puzzle.

Karin and I have noticed with dismay how many parents are pushing their students to read higher AR book levels. I have had several students tell me, "I can't read that book (a book I have suggested I think they would really like). It's below my AR level, and my mom doesn't allow me to read books below my level." Karin has had parents come into the library demanding to know why their child isn't reading at a higher level.

Sadly, many parents seem to have the schooly belief that the whole point of reading is achievement and that pushing children to read higher-level books will equate to "better" readers. There is so much wrong with this I don't know where to start dismantling the argument. It's yet another symptom of the disease of schooliness we are suffer from here in the US (I can't speak for other countries, but I postulate that it is the same or worse in many other places in the world).


Parent Connect: Reading Lives vs. Reading Levels from Andrea Hernandez

Note: The carrot picture on the last slide. I really wanted to include that, as I love what it communicates. However, I've not been able to find a source for attribution. You can see that it is posted all over the web without attribution. If anyone can share a source, please do! In the meantime, I am going to leave it in my slides. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

School or Learning?

It's been such a long time since I have blogged here. There's no time. I'm too busy planning, teaching, grading, blogging on my classroom blogs, responding to student blogs, and the email....don't even get me started on the burden of the email!

The more I don't write, the more I have to write. I miss writing for my own reflection, to look into the mirror of my mind and see what I see there! I decided today just to write. Of the many possibilities, this is what bubbled up to the surface.

Passion Can Not Be Boxed
After 25 years of working in this field I have moved beyond the confines of schooliness. This is not to say that I don't feel tremendous pressure from the outside nor that I don't have to do tasks, such as giving grades, in which I see little value.  I have moved to a new place in my own mind where I trust my instincts more, where passion has triumphed over fear, where playing small no longer serves me (if it ever did). This perspective has been attained only through years and years of incredibly hard work. This is the view from the top of a mountain that has taken my whole adult life to climb.

I think about schooliness a lot. As far as I know, that word was coined by Clay Burell, whose blog, Beyond School, I used to read regularly for inspiration. Although we work mostly in schools, the most passionate educators I know believe that schools need to evolve completely in order to become places that nurture learning and learners, that value joy and curiosity. What does it mean to be educated? Why don't we ask this question more often, of ourselves, of our society?

Why School?
Schools in America have become assembly lines of preparation for more schools which are supposed to be preparation for a good life. Are we asking ourselves if we are, indeed, creating a good life for all? What is a good life?

Here is Florida, the public schools are rated and graded. Parents, naturally, want their children to attend schools that are "A-Rated." What does it mean? It is all based on tests and more tests. AP classes and tests. Rigor. Homework. More homework. These have become the signposts people use to identify "good schools." Joy, curiosity, questioning, thinking....we KNOW these are important, but where is the time? Teachers are demoralized, and many of the best and brightest are leaving schools in order to teach.


Teaching is, at its core, not a job. Teaching is not the sum of the parts of managing a classroom, planning lessons, giving grades. Teaching is a relationship. The teacher-student relationship is archetypal and not in any way dependent on the thing we know as school. Sadly, many people with the job of teacher lack understanding of this truth.

Having an educated populace is more important than ever. Our planet is not in good shape (to put it mildly). We need amazing, educated, thinking people who want to share passion for life and learning with the young. We need to not try to shut those people down. We need to stop trying to measure the unmeasurable.

I suggest a new measurement we can use for if our education is working. Instead of the bubble tests that measure, among other things, ability to guess the best answer out of four, why don't we look around at our society. Are there less school shootings? Are there less suicides? Is the growth of the giant pile of garbage in the ocean slowing or reversing? I could go on and on.... 


Friday, December 12, 2014

Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

"It's not hard, it's just uncomfortable."
Ilisa Cappell said this to me this morning as we were discussing the future of edJEWcon and raising the bar on professional development. She was referring to the mind shift involved in being an information-age educator.

It's so true!
My colleague Karin Hallett has this quote as her email signature:
I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it. (attributed to Vincent Van Gogh)

This, to me, is the essence of what it means to "learn, reflect, share."
This is what it means to be a lead learner.
This is what is means to be a teacher.

When Ilisa said that to me, I immediately thought of my upcoming (in about an hour) Mystery Skype session with one of my classes. I planned it on the spur of the moment, and I didn't feel I had properly prepared the students. I knew it could go well or...not so well. I also know that it doesn't have to go "well" (or what I perceive as success) in order for it to qualify as learning.

I am always doing that which I can not do. I am reasonably comfortable working on the edge of my comfort zone. I may not have prepared the students as thoroughly as I would have liked for the process of the Mystery Skype BUT I know how to lead my students in trying something new and reflecting on the process.

I gave them a little pep talk, answered a few final questions, and stepped out of the way (or mostly out of the way). And I was pleasantly surprised by their teamwork and enthusiasm for their task.
When we finished the Skype call, we reflected on the process. Truly, this was the most interesting part for me. I was so pleased by their ability to be thoughtful about what went well and what we could do better.

Learning has changed. I can learn online by reading about others experiences. I can try something new with my students, reflect and revise. I can model my thinking and process.
But the only way to do this is to make a habit of being a little uncomfortable. Things don't always go well. The more we practice doing that which we can not do, the better we learn. And the best learners are the best teachers.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Practice: The Heart & Soul of Learning

In yoga, there is a famous quote, “Practice and all is coming.” The heart and soul of yoga is the practice. It’s about showing up on the mat, day in and day out, knowing that on some days everything flows, other days not so much.
The yoga teacher’s job is to guide the practice, making small adjustments based on what each student needs, offering challenge and examples of possibility.
IMG_7739
It is the same with literacy. Reading and writing are big-picture practices comprised of many smaller skills. Practice reading and all is coming. Practice writing and all is coming.
I see this so clearly with my 5th graders. In our second year together as readers and writers I see amazing growth. This growth looks different for each student, as it should, but it is undeniably evident. As they practice independent reading (with teacher guidance), their self-selected reading choices are naturally growing toward increasingly challenging material. They are independent and self-motivated.
They love writing! In our individual conferences I see growth in every aspect of each student’s writing. They are practicing skills of punctuation, grammar, spelling and  vocabulary where it truly matters, not on a test or worksheet, but in a creative work of their own self-expression.
Note: These thoughts were originally shared on my classroom blog as the intro to an update for parents. One of my students read the post and left this comment:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Parent Connect: Quality Commenting

Karin Hallett and I run a parent/community education program at our school. We call it "Parent Connect" and it focuses on a variety of topics relate to the evolution of learning and literacy. Yesterday's session topic was quality commenting.

In preparation for the session, Karin worked with our 5th graders to create this fabulous video, which we used to set the tone.


Quality Commenting from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Next, we used the following slides to structure our discussion about how blogging and commenting fit into a framework that uses blogging as one of the primary platforms for literacy instruction.



Some of the slides have corresponding blog posts.  Slide 5, "Creating for an Audience" relates to a post I wrote called, "I Hope You Like It." Slide 7, "Student Commenting Policies" showcases student examples which can be viewed at the post: "Writing Commenting Policies for Student Blogs."

Finally, we showed some examples of comment screenshots from some of our student blogs and discussed/evaluated in terms of quality.


I would love to get more quality comments on my blog as well as see more quality interaction on my students' blogs. What is it that I am missing or lacking? I am very open to and appreciative of feedback on this topic.

Monday, November 24, 2014

edJEWcon Cleveland: After-Thoughts

Last Sunday, edJEWcon hit the road to "Learn, Reflect, Share" at the Gross Schechter Day School in snowy Cleveland.

A lot of learning took place, as well as some mostly "local" sharing via Twitter (hashtag #edjewcon), Today's Meet and a shared Google doc during Silvia Tolisano's brilliant keynote, The 5 C's in Jewish Education.


The day was great. We had hoped for a larger crowd, but the 10-4 timeline on a (snowy) Sunday may have deterred people. We also need to work more on branding. It seems clear that there is a lack of understanding. What IS edJEWcon? Is it a technology conference? (No!)
I did put together a trailer to try to explain, in general, what edJEWcon is about.

edJEWcon from edJEWcon on Vimeo.

Afterwards, we had what I thought was an excellent selection of "breakout sessions" with some really great educators sharing their ideas. For my session, I wanted to lead a conversation called "Learning is Messy." I blogged recently about some of my thoughts and feelings about all of the boxes in education, and it is something I've really been struggling with in my own teaching practice. My goal, as it always is, was to have the session be very interactive. I structured it using the "What? So what? Now what?" protocol.


It felt like a successful session but not a conversation. One thing I really love about going to share my work at other schools or conferences is the perspective it affords me. In my day-to-day reality, I am motivated to work hard by an awareness of how much better I can be, how much more there is to learn and do. It is like climbing a huge mountain without stopping, only focused on how far there still is left to climb.
Sharing my work elsewhere is akin to taking the time to stop and review how much I've already done, to look back and appreciate that I've actually come a long way. It's something I never take time to do unless I find myself sharing the process with others who are interested.

It felt gratifying to share our student blogfolios and student-led conferences with the teachers in Cleveland. They were impressed by our students' capacity for reflective self-evaluation, as well as the evidence of digital literacy (hyperlinked persuasive blog posts; Creative Commons images, properly cited) they saw on the student blogs.

I am left with these questions, needing more thought and discussion:
Why is it so challenging to get the whole learn-reflect-share cycle happening? Is it worth the effort? How can we create a structure that supports the entire process?

How do we continue to grow these experiences for maximum impact on the learning culture at our schools? How do we build and sustain a network that exists beyond the in-person experience?