Friday, March 5, 2021

Langwitches and Edtechworkshop

As you can see I have neglected this blog for years, and it is growing weeds (in the form of spam comments). However, it feels like the most appropriate place for me to pour out my thoughts and memories of my dear mentor and friend, Silvia Tolisano.  Of course, Silvia did not approve of me hosting my blog on Blogspot and always encouraged me to have my own domain (which I did for a while....but alas...). 

I first met Silvia through blogging. Like so many people, I immediately recognized her brilliance, and I wanted her to be my mentor.  I did not ask her but just proceeded as if it were so, and through some serendipity, it came to be. We told the story years later in this video which, of course, Silvia documented and shared. 

That was in 2008 and I consider Silvia one of the great gifts of my life. I admired everything about her and learned so much from her. I simply can not believe that her life ended so suddenly this week. I am bereft and grieving for this amazing woman and her beloved family. 

Silvia was true-blue, the real deal. 

In the social media, edublogging world of vying for an audience, Silvia just did her work with impeccable focus and stereotypically German high standards, and shared it all on her blog, Langwitches. She grew a faithful following through the incredible resources that she created and shared freely.  If we encountered a challenge with our students, Silvia was not content to simply solve it. The solution must be documented (in a graphically pleasing and accessible way) and shared so that other educators might benefit from the experience as well as improve the process through the addition of their own ideas and input. The cycle of transparent learning and growth was just her way of working. 

Silvia was also the real deal as a human being, applying the same focus and standards to her personal life as she did to her work. I admired her so thoroughly and enjoyed working with her so much that I was not content to have her only as a professional mentor. I wanted her to be my friend. As much as Silvia was calm and self-contained, I am equally emotional and effusive. She gently drew a boundary that took me many years to dissolve, but we did become friends, and I valued that friendship deeply. 

It is not hyperbole to say that Silvia shined like the brightest star. She led always by example. She made things look easy (and maybe for her they were) because she was so organized, so talented, so articulate (in three languages!) And she expected that level of quality from everyone else. But in equal measure, Silvia was kind, understanding and compassionate. She was also quite funny and told wonderful stories. I traveled with her often and never got tired of hanging out with her. 

She was my mentor at work for many years, and for that I was amazingly fortunate. But I also aspired to learn from her in the personal realm. She inspired me with her self-discipline and personal goals (like her relatively recent passion for running) as well as her ethical standards and consistent, positive impact on those around her. And I hold dearly to the example Silvia set in her family life. She was an incredible mother, daughter, wife, sister and grandmother. She was the hub in the center of a beautiful, close-knit family. 

Today, March 5th, a "Facebook memory" notification  popped up of this picture from my son's bar mitzvah, 4 years ago. 

Silvia generously took our family photographs (just another of her talents) for the bar mitzvah.  She is not in the picture, but she was right there. And a part of her will be with me always.

Silvia didn't like for me to say I love you to her. But Silvia, I love you. Thank you for being in my life, for being my teacher and my friend. Thank you for encouraging me and believing in me. I will miss you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Cross-posted from with some edits

It's January, and I am wrapping up work with a cohort of teachers from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. The cohort of four teachers has been experimenting with professional blogging, learning the ins and outs, the challenges and the rewards. For our last session together, we are taking the time to reflect and discuss what we've learned. I first had the idea for a #comments4teachers post and hashtag after our first meeting in August, but I didn't act immediately on the idea and, as these things tend to do, it lost its urgency. However, as I listened to the teachers discussing what they've learned, I reflect that perhaps, in my role of coach, I might have done more to connect my students (the teacher-bloggers) to that elusive "authentic audience."

Here's the thing: we blog for ourselves- to document our learning, to sort through our thoughts, and, as Alexis articulated, to be able to share our organized ideas with others easily when they contact us at other points in time. But, we also tend to write for an audience (that is not ourself) because it's a natural part of the exchange that is reading-writing.

The #comments4kids hashtag is a brilliant and popular movement to bring that authentic audience and interaction to the blogs of young (kid) students. It requires both give and take; if you use the hashtag to bring commenters to the blogs of your own students, you should be so thoughtful as to reciprocate by taking time to leave comments for the students of other teachers.

But what about adult bloggers who are sharing publicly via blogging for the first time? For many teachers, blogging their professional learning and reflections feels quite risky. They don't know who is reading. Is anyone interested? Will they be judged?

I read a lot of posts that urge teachers to blog. However, I wonder if the writers of those posts make the effort to encourage those teachers who do take the jump. It's easy to say that teachers should write and share just for the sake of being transparent, joining the big online conversation. Yes, teachers are adults and professionals; maybe we think they shouldn't need comments or encouragement. But blogging is a huge commitment of time and energy; a little positive reinforcement from the outside world might go a long way.

So, I'm suggesting here a new hashtag #comments4teachers. If you believe that teachers should blog, take a few minutes each day or maybe once or twice a week and search for this hashtag. In a culture of learning, teachers ARE students and, while they might not be kids, I guarantee that they will appreciate a quality comment. Let's do more than just write posts about why teachers should blog. Let's encourage the ones who are climbing out on that limb!

Friday, February 26, 2016

6 Benefits to Learning In Connected Communities


As one who studies learning, I have become fascinated by a type of learning activity I've observed on Instagram. I segment my interests using different social media platforms for different parts of my personality and have been using Instagram (where I go by the name @effort_ease) as a place to follow others who share my interest in yoga (whereas Twitter where I am @edtechworkshop is all about teaching and learning). I do this only because I am like a kid in a candy store when it comes to social media, finding so many interesting people to connect with and learn from that I can't fathom having it all in one place.

When I first began filling my Instagram feed with amazing yogis, I became aware of an assortment of yoga challenges taking place. This is the general protocol for an Instagram challenge:

  • Outreach- There are at least two, often many more, host accounts for each challenge. These are prominent accounts with many followers who generate excitement and interest for participating in the challenge since you get to interact on some level with these motivators.
  • Activity- There is a daily challenge to be fulfilled via an uploaded photo tagged with the challenge hashtag
  • Reflection- Reflection appears, in most challenges, to be optional yet widely practiced. I find this especially interesting. The nature of participating in a challenge seems to bring out a desire to share more than just the photo. Typically, posters will share thoughts about what fulfilling the day's challenge entailed or brought to the surface, what was experienced or learned, future goals and thoughts about the nature of learning and growth related to the activity.
  • Reward- many challenges are sponsored by a business account who uses the challenge to build their own brand awareness. For example, a business that makes yoga clothes may sponsor a yoga challenge by offering a piece of their clothing as an incentive. All who meet the requirements of posting are eligible to win the prize at the end of the challenge. 
I've now discovered that there are many self-selected groups of Instagrammers in a wide variety of interest groups that use challenges and community support, as well as the power of visual documentation, to support their growth and goals.

  • What are the lessons here for those who wish to inspire learning in more traditional settings? 
  • How can teachers and schools leverage the power of these types of learning communities? 

I've identified six benefits of social media challenges that motivate learners and help them succeed.

Self-Selected Learning Goals: It is clear that learners are motivated by that which is meaningful to their own interests and goals. Many schools are acknowledging the importance of this by offering genius hour or passion projects as part of the curriculum.  Even within a more externally defined curriculum, teachers can find ways to leverage student interests and offer opportunities for choice.                                                           
Structure: Instagram challenges have a clearly defined structure; there is a starting date and an ending date. There are requirements for full participation. There are instructions for each day's activity. Within this structure, there is endless room for creativity and interpretation, but the structure gives form to the entire pursuit. Structure supports growth!
Support: I believe the support of the group is one of the strongest benefits offered by learning in community. One amazing example of this is the "BBG" (Bikini Body Guide) community built by 24-year old Australian personal trainer, Kayla Itsines. Currently, Itsines has 4.5 million Instagram followers, many of whom have purchased her food and exercise guides. What contributes enormously to the success of Itsines's program is the support community she has built, and continues to nurture, on Instagram.

According to a 2015 article, Kayla and the 3 Million-Strong Bikini Body Movement,
The hashtag #BBG has been used over a million times on Instagram, at a rate of one post every thirty seconds. Other hashtags like #KaylasArmy, #thekaylamovement, #thek2movement, #deathbykayla, and #kaylaitsines are also rampant. 
The "BBG girls" support one another by posting inspirational quotes, sharing recipes and giving "likes" and encouraging comments to hashtagged photos.

Accountability: Accountability is built into the structure. There are no external reinforcements; participants must be self-motivated in order to succeed. However, for self-directed learners to have a daily check-in with peers is tremendously powerful. In schools it is too often teachers, grades, parents and other external motivators that provide the bulk of the accountability needed for work to move forward. I wonder how we can shift                                          our accountability structures away from grades and toward more of these types of peer check-ins that help us hold ourselves and others accountable for staying the course.
Challenge: Challenge is something that occurs naturally on a true learning path. No learner wants to stay in one place. The problem with typical classroom learning is that it can be difficult for a teacher to constantly gauge the level of challenge appropriate for each learner. Some learners are not sufficiently empowered or do not possess the confidence or stamina necessary to push themselves in an academic environment. Seeing photos of the achievements of others acts as inspiration to challenge oneself. The supportive (non-graded, non-judgmental) environment for achieving the goal is, I believe, more conducive to taking risks. Finally, each person posts one photo or video "artifact" showing their interpretation of the day's challenge. The underlying process, including failed attempts and difficult practice sessions, are not necessarily showcased. But they are, undoubtedly, the backstory to every successful picture that gets posted.

Document Growth: Another compelling and inspiring piece is the power of photos and videos to make learning visible. BBG and other fitness groups use hashtags like #transformationtuesday to document their progress with side-by-side, before and after selfies. It is amazing to see the growth that occurs with persistent effort and the passage of time.

What would learning look like if schools leveraged the benefits of learning communities as successfully as social media? I know there are many schools, teachers and classrooms playing with these ideas. Fundamentally, we will have to shift our whole mindset around learning if we are to create schools with true cultures of learning. Learning is a journey. I believe the Instagram challenges (and similar memes, challenges, etc. happening through social media) make learning fun and, most importantly, give learners permission to be wherever they are on that journey and provide support, challenge and more.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Structures to Support Professional Learning

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about learning, I have spent a lot of time pondering the best structures to support learning and growth. I have shared my thinking on my blog as well as my attempts to design and implement structures that work.

Looking back to the December 2011 post Making Shift Happen- How?  I think this was the first post that expressed my searching for a structure that would work universally to shift school culture to one of self-motivated, self-directed learning for all.  Here we are in January 2016, and I am still playing with these ideas, having tried many approaches (which are documented throughout the blog). At this point, I'm pretty sure that there is nothing that has universal appeal, no "magic-bullet" that engages every learner and paves a path to lifelong growth-mindset.

This does not stop me from continuing to plug away at the process. If you follow my journey, you know that my job description changes from year to year. This year, I am out of the classroom and once again focusing my energies on professional learning for teachers. 

One thing that I notice is how different teacher-learners are from my 4th/5th grade learners. I think that teachers, as a group, can tend to be more closed-off to learning, whereas the kids are more open. They know that their job is learning and they generally participate in the process. Another thing I notice is how similar teacher-learners are to my 4th/5th graders. As a group, the teachers are similar to a classroom of students. Some are super motivated and need little to no external motivation. They love learning and seek out challenge. They welcome coaching and feedback. Others need a high degree of external structure and pacing. They need a push to get started and keep moving but would rather be left alone.  

The thing noticed about myself is that I always (ok, almost always) felt compassion for my young students, even the ones who, let's be honest, never lifted a finger without serious work on my part! Yet, with teacher-learners, I've typically lacked compassion and felt only frustration; these are paid professionals! I'm trying to temper my approach and bring more understanding and yes, love, to my work with adult learners. 

I am still working at designing materials and structures that help support growth, as I also work on managing my own expectations. Ultimately, I believe deeply that becoming an excellent, reflective learner is the number one job of the teacher and is an ongoing, never-ending process. In my classroom it was important that the learning space be beautiful. As I evolve as an instructional designer, it is important to me that my teaching materials are visually appealing, concise and well-organized (aka beautiful), and I am working very hard on my own learning of design and visual note taking. 

All of this is the preface to sharing some recent materials I created for "my teachers" at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School to support professional learning. One is a sketchnote depicting the idea of creating SMART goals. The other is a worksheet (yes :-) that can be used during the planning process. (this is one page of a two page worksheet. If you'd like a PDF version of the whole thing, let me know. I'm happy to share). 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Parent Connect: Kids and Screens

Karin Hallett and I, as part of our "Parent Connect" series of interactive discussions, recently facilitated a session called, "Kids and Screens."
Here are the slides and resources we shared:

We began by sharing our learning intentions which was mainly to create a space for informed and open discussion and sharing. We also wanted to bring to the light of consciousness the connection between our anxieties about kids' screen use and our own behavior with screens. 

It's always slightly amazing/shocking/overwhelming... to watch the numbers under "Society & Media" on the Worldometers site. It certainly makes a numerical case that our world is irrevocably a world of digital communication. Then we shared some information about media use of tweens and teens, as well as adults.

We also reviewed key ideas from the updated recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics Growing Up Digital Report

We finished our session by watching this thought-provoking TED Talk, "We Are All Cyborgs Now" by "cyborg anthropologist," Amber Chase. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Let's Elevate the Teaching Profession

As a 4th/5th grade teacher, I read a lot of middle-grades literature. I have noticed that it is not uncommon for the villain of the story to be a mean teacher or a teacher who doesn't really understand or appreciate children. Of course, as Mrs. Granger from Frindle wrote in her letter to Nick, "Every good story needs a bad guy, don't you think?" (Side note: If you haven't read Frindle by Andrew Clements, put it on your to-read list NOW. It is a modern-day classic, a superb story for kids of all ages.)

I guess in the world of school-age children, teachers make an obvious choice for the bad guy character, and it does make a story deliciously fun, especially when the children (as they so often do) outwit the evil, stupid adult who previously made their lives miserable.
Image Search for "Mean Teacher" 

Yes, there are some stories where the teacher is the protagonist. But have you noticed how, in those stories, the teacher is often portrayed as someone special or unique, a hero because of how they actually care about kids as opposed to the other adults in the school (see Roxanna Elden's humorous take on this in "The Myth of the Super Teacher."

The Myth of the Super Teacher from EdWriters on Vimeo.

We need to stop this.
Right now.

Teaching is an amazingly challenging profession. Hopefully, people who choose to teach do so because they embrace those challenges and care about children. I was talking recently to a friend whose three children attend an exclusive private school. She told me that the parents' behavior toward teachers is, at times, abusive. I know that she is not exaggerating, as I have witnessed this behavior, too. And I believe the level of disrespect for teachers is growing and becoming mainstream, even acceptable.

Are there "bad teachers" in schools? Well....define bad. All of us, at one time or another, do things of which we aren't proud. We make mistakes. We realize that we did or didn't do something we shouldn't or should have done (or should have done differently).

I believe that teaching is much more than a job. It is a life, a calling, an obsession if you will. I believe that all teachers should be hungry to learn and grow, to improve, to write, reflect, create, and share work. I don't think all teachers are equal, and I feel frustrated when teachers act in ways other than as academic professionals. In other words, I hold very high standards for all teachers, and I am disappointed when my standards are not met.

That said, enough with the negative characterization of teachers.
Enough with the blaming.
Enough with expecting teachers to be perfect.
Enough with classifying teachers into "good" and "bad."

Let's explain to our children, ourselves and each other that we can learn something from everyone. Let's work on ourselves first as role models for children (because what are children learning when they see and hear their parents denigrate and complain about their teachers?). Let's maybe work on seeking out the positive.

And, of course, let's set high standards for teachers and students. Let's make it easy for schools to weed out incompetence (without having to pay people while they sit in a room all day). Let's view teaching as an academic profession and expect our teachers to regularly read, write and practice whatever it is they teach. And let's make sure that teachers have sufficient time to do those things!

Monday, April 13, 2015

It's Time to Stop Pretending!

Thanks, Scott McLeod for starting this challenge:
When it comes to education, what are 5 things that we have to stop pretending? Post on your blog, tag 5 others, and share using the #makeschooldifferent hashtag.
Feel free to also put the URL of your post in the comments area so others can find it!

I love it. Here are mine:

We need to stop pretending...

  • that learning comes in a box...enough of boxed and pre-packaged curriculum materials! Learning is messy!
  • that kids come in a are not standardized. Even when they have been born in the same 365-day span, kids have different needs, interests, and abilities. 
  • that it's acceptable to do outdated things because they "worked" in the past. It's not the past.
  • that letter grades are the best and most useful feedback related to learning
  • that covering material and giving a test is the same thing as real learning and growth

Please post your own post and share it here in the comments, as well as on Twitter using the hashtag #makeschooldifferent

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to Get A Kid's Eye Perspective on Your Teaching

As a language arts teacher, it is important to make sure my students understand perspectives. We discuss the ways different characters in literature view situations from varying points of view and the clues an author provides to help us see situations through the mind of a character.

As a teacher of young students (4th/5th grades) I need to remember that their perspectives are different, from each other and especially from my adult/teacher point of view. Of course, the best way for me to tune into their perspectives is by paying attention to the clues they give me!

My students have weekly jobs which inspire them to document their learning. The tweets, photos, and blog posts they share is one way I get to see the difference between what I (thought I) taught and what they got or thought was important/memorable.  

Look at these two photos. I am not sure if they were shared by one photographer (documentarian) or by two different students, but I think the perspective from a child's point of view is so interesting! 
Would you want to be a student in your class? If not, what will you do about it?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Parent Connect: What's So Great About Finland

Today, Karin and I shared a Parent Connect about education in Finland. It is not a topic about which I am very well-informed, so a lot of our preparation consisted of reading and learning. I have heard so much about Finland, and it was interesting to fill in some of the details and discuss with those in attendance.

We opened the session with this video, of which we showed the first 3:25 minutes.

We then shared some background information, including the following points:

  • 50 years ago, Finland had terrible ed system
  • education was a key part of Finland’s economic recovery plan
  • Now they are hailed internationally for extremely high ed outcomes (reading, math and science literacy over the past decade)

as well as sharing some background information about PISA, including:

  • In 2000, the first results of the PISA revealed Finland’s 15 year olds as the best young readers in the world
  • In 2003, Finland led in math, In 2006 they were first (out of 57 countries) in science, 2009 they were 2nd in science, 3rd in reading and 6th in math out of half a million students worldwide

We outlined the innovations that currently seem to be working in Finland.

We then asked participants to categorize these ideas into two groups on a T-Chart, dividing them into things that are normally associated with "traditional" education vs. "non-traditional" education settings. 

Further Reading:

And, for another perspective...(although I am not familiar with this source):

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 several 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 the community, Respect SLA as a place of learning. 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. Good Design Required!
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. 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.