Saturday, December 15, 2012

Schooly Non-Discussables

I just read Miguel Guhlin's post The Undiscussables of Tech Leadership (as well as a few other thought-provoking blog posts from his blog, Around the Corner).

I've worked (hard) for 20 years to be the best educator I can be. do my best to understand, both in an academic sense and in a pragmatic, experiential way, what that even means.

Part of me believes that it's all perspective. Being a tech leader (or now, just a leader having taken out  "edtech" from the title since it's all just "ed" in 2012, right?) at a small school I go back and forth from positive to negative, frustration to optimism. In no particular order and not tech-related, here are a few things that I just do not get-

-Why do some teachers firmly believe that textbooks and teacher's guides are a necessity in order to "cover all the material?"

-We do we think covering material means learning has occurred?

-Are we too obsessed with technology, gadgets and devices?

-Why are so many children given spelling lists and words to memorize?

-Will we ever agree on what makes a good school or a good teacher?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Innovative Culture at Google

Image Credit:Nina Matthews Photography
I spent today and yesterday last Wednesday and Thursday at Google in Mountain View as part of the Google Teacher Academy. I've experienced learning in the form of information overload that I will have to slowly process over time. What I'm thinking about most right now is the innovative culture that makes Google the kind of place that draws the best and the brightest (according to the person that led our tour they receive MILLIONS of resumes every year).

Of course, I am an outside observer, and I've only observed a scratch of the surface. But certain things stand out.

Positivity- Everyone I met is brimming over with enthusiasm and excitement for what they do. They don't like working here; they love it. They feel privileged to be here. As Patrick Pichette, Google's CFO said when he spoke to our group, "Life is short; you have the right to whistle to work."

Humanness- In contrast to many teachers, people who work at Google can go to the bathroom whenever they want. Not only that, the bathrooms are quite nice (with heated toilet seats).
The food is great, plentiful and free. Google supplies workers with free transportation, counseling, recreation, pet-sitting assistance, massages, haircuts, and the list goes on and on. In other words, they recognize that people work best when they are not stressed about other matters. They want people at their best so that they can shine.

The Gift of Time- Google is famous for 20% time. Engineers at Google are given 20% of their work time to pursue whatever interests them, the idea being that our brains need time and space to explore, learn and expand. It is that expansion and freedom that births new ideas. Many teachers and schools are taking note and experimenting with giving students 20% time to explore their interests and pursue personal projects.

Passion to make a difference in the world- Everyone wants to feel like what they do matters. It is a mindset, not necessarily tied to any industry or line of work. The people I met at Google were passionate about using their energies to make a difference in the world. According to Pichette, Google is 3 things- a search engine, a for-profit (and wildly successful) company, and a university-type environment. The financial success is necessary in order to create the university-type environment and the university environment is necessary to nurture the innovative ideas that in turn creates more financial success. But I got the feeling that the true motivation was making the world a better place and the money was the by-product of that, as well as the enabler of continued growth.

The world IS Broken!- I don't know how many times I've declared, "If it's not broke..." According to Pichette, at Google they view the world as broken and go about finding pragmatic ways to fix it. This speaks strongly to me, as I (like so many people) am resistant to change. I get comfortable (stuck!) with things being the way they are and fail to imagine new possibilities.

Be Yourself- What I didn't see at Google, was people watching the clock. I saw no mass exodus to the parking lot at 5 pm. I did see guests joining their working friends and family for meals. I saw people playing volleyball and bowling in the bowling alley. I glimpsed the dance studio and other fun places to take a break from thinking, writing, coding or whatever they happen to do. Hmmmm.... makes me think of the saying of one of my student-teaching mentors (about students), "They're here because they're alive!"

Share- Google is all about open access to information. Yes, we had to sign a non-disclosure agreement that extended to photography of non-public spaces. However, every lead-learner and presenter said something to the effect of, "Feel free to use my materials." The unspoken corollary to that is, "go ahead and remix, create something better and then share that." This is how the web is changing the world and pushing us to "dream more, learn more, do more, become more."

Don't Lose the Forest for the Trees- (or just "save the trees!") I have written before about my fear that a lack of concern for environmental sustainability is the dark side of edtech. Of course, it IS California (where the general vibe is so much more in tune) but I, personally, appreciated the evident respect for reducing and recycling. No earth= no tech.

So, which of these ideas can schools apply in our quests to be innovative learning environments?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

SLCs - Students Lead, We Succeed!

Thank you to 5th grade blogger, Evie. Her post, "We Lead and We Succeed" was the inspiration for the title of this post.

Who Owns the Conference?
Every fall and every spring, a letter goes home to parents with the schedule for parent-teacher conferences. A line at the bottom reads, "Please remember that students should not be present at conferences."
Every single time I read this I think, "This is really missing the point."
If our goals are to empower students and focus on individual learning, doesn't it make sense that students should be present when the important adults in their lives meet to talk about their learning, their growth, their goals?

I was excited when, in the course of writing professional development plans with teachers, 5th grade teacher Shelly Zavon expressed an interest in focusing her PD on a student-centered answer to Alan November's question, "Who Owns the Learning?" Shelly is already using several of November's "Digital Learning Farm" models and ideas in her classroom, so we decided to delve into something new by exploring student-led conferences.

(I should say that in the 1990's, when I taught in San Francisco public schools, student-led conferences were a fairly common practice. Our challenge was often getting anyone to show up for the conference. So, I have been surprised by the resistance I've encountered when I've suggested that students belong at the conference table.)

We began by reading and researching- looking for models, examples, and stories. Shelly, Silvia and I created a collaborative Pinterest board to share our finds.  Everything we discovered from the field was positive and reinforced that this was the right direction for a school dedicated to nurturing a culture of reflection and growth.

As far as preparing the students, Shelly found a model she liked and made time for the students to reflect. She asked the other teachers to write goals for each student, and the students used those goals as part of their own goal-setting. I was basically there to watch and learn, to support and champion the process.

Is Pushback Inevitable & Even Necessary?

One thing that was interesting and is worth noting is that we had a "moment" of expressed negativity from the students just as we were beginning the most focused part of the preparation. Seemingly out of nowhere students told us they were "against" the student-led model. What they expressed was anxiety, lack of confidence and a discomfort with change. They were overly worried about "bad grades." They didn't really want to come to school (for only 20 minutes) on a day off! One honest student admitted, "Sometimes I tell my parents and my teachers different things; I don't really want to have to talk to them together."

We also heard uncertainty from parents and others. What if there was something that shouldn't be expressed in front of a child? What if the conference was needed to begin a "difficult conversation?" Although I usually am quick to question myself, in this case I remained unwavering in my belief that students belong at the "conference table."
We decided to make the SLC's optional. If a parent really wanted the traditional parent-teacher conference, they could forego the student-led. However, each student would still participate in the reflection and preparation. We offered to parents that they were welcome to schedule another meeting with the teacher at a later date if they felt that it was necessary. In the end, every parent participated in the SLCs and what we heard from parents and students was overwhelmingly positive.
The video really says more than I ever could. Please watch it!

Student-Led Conferences from Andrea Hernandez on Vimeo.

What's Next?
As part of our action research, we are collecting and processing feedback from all parties. Students were asked to blog about their experiences and feelings after the conference, and parents were requested to comment on their child's post. We have also shared a survey with parents.
Students (who, remember, expressed fear and opposition before the conferences) were overwhelmingly positive in hindsight. Many said they don't want to have to wait until spring to participate in another conference; they wish conferences were every nine weeks!

Students Reflect:
Ben C "What is a SLC?" wrote:
I think the best thing about this experience was me sharing my work face-to-face with my parents. Another thing I like about the conference was explaining to my parents what I did and why I did it instead of my teacher trying to do it for me. I really like SLC and I am looking forward for the next one.
Gil, in his post "Confrontation Conference" wrote:
The best thing about this experience had to be not waiting for my parents to come home and have to tell me what happened, so I think the best part of the student led conferences was definitely being there when people I trust talk about me!
To read more, check out the 5th grade student blogfolios.

My hope is that this successful experiment was not a one-shot deal, that this is the beginning of a process of change in the way our school views parent-teacher conferences going forward.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Writing Commenting Policies for Student Blogs

Assessments come in many forms and should be ongoing. As students develop knowledge and skills and build their schemas about the world, they are better able to articulate their understanding of complex ideas. One goal of student blogfolios is to help students recognize quality- in both their own work and the work of others. Our 4th and 5th graders have been working with the idea of quality blog commenting for three years. As teachers, one way we help our students understand quality is to provide rubrics or other guidelines and expectations. One way to assess understanding of quality comments is to have them provide guidelines for others. We did this by having each 4th and 5th grade student create a commenting policy for his or her blog.

First we discussed the concept- what is a commenting policy? Why have one on your blog? 5th grade had a lively debate on whether a commenting policy would hold people back from leaving a comment at all. This sparked a discussion about quality vs. quantity (is it better to have a lot of "junky" comments on your blog or less comments in number but more thoughtful in content?) as well as a great discussion about word choice or media and tone of message matters (inviting vs. bossy).
Here are some notes from the discussion with 4th graders:

What is a policy?
A policy is guidelines or rules you have to follow in order to do something. -Ayden
Why write a commenting policy?
-to limit the junky comments
-you're helping people who might want to leave a comment
-to tell people what you want to expect from a comment
-you can help people be better at writing comments
-to show that you want quality comments on your blog
How will you prepare to write your commenting policy?
First look at a few examples. Here are some student blogs with written guidelines for commenting. Take a few minutes to read (or watch) them carefully. As you are reading (or watching) pay attention to what works or doesn't work for you. Start to form ideas of what you will include in your commenting policy and how you create it.
Guess What?'s Blog This one uses an animated video to share commenting guidelines
•Make a new page for your commenting policy.

The students embraced the process and were given their choice of tools. The products show each student's understanding of and ability to communicate the idea of quality comments.

Julia's Quality Commenting Policy from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Jonah's Commenting Policy

Itamar's Commenting Policy

Comments from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Monday, October 22, 2012

So, You Want to Teach?

Anna Zhuo is an education student who has been assigned to read and comment on my blog. In her last comment she asked, "What advice would you give to a future educator?" Instead of responding in the comments, I decided the answer to that question was worthy of a blog post. 

Dear Future Educator,
Welcome to a challenging, creative and meaningful life journey. Although teaching is a way to earn a living, it is not a job. Teaching is a craft. Like any artist, you will spend your entire life obsessing over and honing your work.

•Find a mentor. Seek out a teacher or teachers you admire, someone whose classroom appeals to you. Learn from them.

•Learn from everyone. Copy what you like. Avoid what you don't like. Adapt things so they work for your students.

•Become reflective. When something goes badly, treat it like a puzzle to solve. Write about it. Talk about it. Ask your students about it. Do it over in a different way.

•Know yourself. You will bring your core values into your classroom so know where you stand and what you believe.

•As you are learning from everyone, being reflective about your teaching and knowing your core values, celebrate yourself as a learner. Share your learning with others, especially your students. Be in love with learning. Study it. As you learn new things, pay attention to how you learn them.

•Practice what you teach. If you teach reading and writing, read and write. Stay current with your subject or subjects. It is not enough that you graduated from college. That is just the beginning.

•Work within your circle of influence. The circle of influence is an idea from Stephen Covey's,  7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Highly effective people are proactive. Proactive people focus on things over which they have control. As a teacher there will be many things over which you have no control. Spend your energy on those things that you can control.

•Be prepared to work very hard. Be prepared for people to not understand how hard you work. Try not to take it personally when people say things like, "How great that you get your summers off" or "Teaching- how noble" or when people think you are patient just because you are a teacher.

•Take care of yourself. You are the conductor of energy in the room so your energy matters. Get enough sleep. Find time to exercise and relax. Have a life outside of teaching.

Your craft is the art of learning. And learning is the art of living.
Teaching is not easy. You might sometimes wish you worked at the carwash instead.
But remember that you are touching lives.

What advice do you have for future teachers? Please add your thoughts.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Creating a Target- A Work in Progress

Our "teaching & learning team" formerly known as the "21st century learning team" (it IS 2012) is working together to create a structure to support our school's growth and change. Our process this year started with reading and discussing Jim Knight's book Unmistakable Impact. According to this book, one of the foundations of the impact schools theory is a collaboratively-created one-page target. 

The amazing thing about learning/reading/discussing together is that we are able to take these ideas and work with them in the real world of OUR school. 

So, the one-page target. Last year, we found a rubric called "Evidence of Learning in the 21st Century Classroom" which we used as a starting point. We spent some time re-visioning and re-writing it for our purposes. By "we" I mean two of us, the "21st century learning team." We introduced it to the faculty. We reviewed it as part of our inservice day. After I began reading Unmistakable Impact with #educoach, and became convinced that the target should fit on one page, we shortened it from detailed rubric to just the headings and sub-headings. 
When I worked on professional development plans with teachers this year, I connected each plan to one of the domains on the rubric. 

But still. 
It was presented to the faculty, not created by the faculty. So we have decided to go back to the drawing board and try to do this the right way, with input from anyone who is interested in adding their ideas.

What we have now has six pages of details in addition to the one page summary. It assumes background knowledge that teachers may or may not have. In lieu of already having the background understanding, we have included references to several other documents. 
Here is the one-page summary:

I am hopeful that we are on the right track and that, once we have a group-sourced, one-page target, we will be that much closer to a structure that guides and supports us in the continual effort toward improving teaching and learning. 


Friday, October 12, 2012

Read to Someone

As I continue coaching the Daily 5 implementation, part of my coaching work is to document the process.
This video is my first attempt at creating a video completely on the iPad. Clips were recorded using the iPad and edited in iMovie. Just for fun, I created the little title sequence in a fun new app I am playing with called Video Scribe.

Daily 5- Read To Someone from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Thinking about the video itself-
1. I LOVE the iPad as a video creation tool. The iMovie app took a little getting used to, but it could not be any easier. So. much. potential!
2. I think it's a little longish in the middle (the "Coaching or Time?" lesson might have been edited a bit more.
3. I don't love the music I chose for the Video Scribe sequence, but I do really like how polished that little bit of animation is, and so easy to create.

What does the video show about the Daily 5?
1. My favorite parts, of course, are where the kids are doing "read to someone." I saw genuine engagement in either reading aloud or following along by almost all of the students for the entire time.
2. I also love (although the filming is a little rough and probably could have used some more titles) how the kids modeled choosing a partner by following the carefully outlined steps:
-Raise your hand
-Look around for someone else with a raised hand.
-Make eye contact with the person.
-Walk over to the other person and say, "Will you please be my partner?"
-Person responds enthusiastically, "Sure. Thank you."
3. I also love how the Daily 5 turns each student into a reading coach by giving explicit directions, strategies and modeling.

Just a few general thoughts and reflections:
1. Nothing is ever simple. Or maybe it's that nothing worthwhile is simple. I believe in simplicity. I crave it. I thought the Daily 5 was simple. A no-brainer. Kids read and write. Teachers confer and teach. Grouping is flexible. Maybe my revelation is that what appears to be simple appears that way only because of the complexity that creates or enables it. Does that make any sense?
2. I love the fundamentals of this process. LOVE them. The best part is watching how it is working-the careful explanations and modeling, the trust in students, the staying out of the way.
3. In preparation for our Parent Connect, where we invited parents to come learn about the Daily 5, I searched back through lots of old materials I used when I worked for CRLP. I found this article, by John Shefelbine, that I think gives great evidence for the Daily 5.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Where's the Authentic Audience?

Have you seen the "buzzword bingo" games that go around at conferences? According to Wikipedia, a buzzword has the characteristics of:
  • Intentional vagueness. Their positive connotations prevents questioning of intent. 
  • A desire to impress a judge, an examiner, an audience, or a readership, or to win an argument, through name-dropping of esoteric and poorly understood terms in an attempt to inflate trivial ideas to something of importance.

One of these concepts, that is starting to feel like a buzzword to me,  is "authentic audience." You've heard it. I've said it. Students used to turn in work to the teacher, the audience of one. But blogs, wikis and other tools have changed all that. Now our students can share their work with (say it with me) "an authentic global audience." Really?

There is no doubt that student's work MUST be authentic and that writing for real communication is highly motivating. Take blogging for example.  Bloggers write to communicate, share and flesh out ideas. If the communication is one-way, learning may still occur. But without feedback and conversation, blogging is only slightly different than writing in a journal. If only the teacher reads and comments, how is blogging different than the "audience of one?"

What does this mean for student bloggers? What does it take to make the process truly authentic and truly interactive? I asked on Twitter but got no response...ironic? Or case in point?

Quality Work-
There are only so many people "out there" who want to read poorly written, lacking-in-passion posts with titles like "Journal #5." This poses a problem for teachers who are trying to embrace tools, but also looking for ways to structure writing assignments. Posting to a blog does not guarantee either student motivation or high quality work. 
How much choice are students given in the assignment? How much teacher guidance goes into the final product? I don't propose a canned solution. Like most dilemmas in education, every teacher has to figure this out by asking, "What will work for each individual student in my class?" 

Connected Teachers-
As teachers, we know the power of modeling. If we don't know or understand something, how can we teach it? Those teachers who, themselves,  have the strongest networks are the most successful with connecting their students in all kinds of ways. 
In my role, as teacher of teachers, it is not enough for me to set up blogs and teach the students and teachers to use them. If the teachers who assign the blog posts don't understand blogging in a deep, experiential way, the assignment is just that- a homework assignment.  

Give and Take-
In a conversation we talk and listen. We ask questions and care about the answers. Talking to myself is not a conversation. In the edublogosphere are we guilty of talking too much and interacting too little? How many bloggers leave regular comments for others? How many teachers who tweet and share the work of their own students, seeking comments and feedback from others, take the time to respond when someone else asks? 
Are we teaching our students to read the posts of other students? Are we taking the time to model and teach quality commenting? Are we assigning students to interact with others or just to write their own posts? Are we, as teachers, taking responsibility to mentor and interact with students other than our own? 

Writing with the Audience in Mind-
One thing that I have noticed over and over again, with students of all ages is the way they end a story or video or other project with the words, "I hope you like it" or "I hope you enjoy my story." They ARE innately creating with an audience in mind. And they want the audience to connect with their work. But we know that it's not enough to hope. We have to learn to use our words and images in ways that draw the attention we seek. We need to teach our students good writing, and good writing has a purpose and an audience in mind. 

Digital Literacy-
Digital writing is different. I am still learning this myself, as I know I am too wordy. In high school and college I wasn't wordy enough and had to force myself to say more to fill x pages or words to fulfill the assignment. The jury is still out on whether the Internet is making us shallower, but there is little doubt that our eyes are not drawn to endless lines of text on the digital page. Are we teaching students to use bullet points, subtitles and images? Are we teaching them to write succinctly and powerfully?

One of the parents at our school brought up the issue of humility. I thought it was an astute observation- that so much of online behavior is attention-seeking. We post something on Facebook because we hope it will be liked. We are excited for the "success" of a video gone viral. Is this the right measuring stick for work of meaning and depth, work that shows quality and growth?  How do we help students develop positive character values, such as patience and humility, in this instant, connected world?

These are just a few points to consider. What have I forgotten?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Daily 5- Work on Writing

Last week Stephanie introduced the Daily 5 component "Work on Writing" to her 4th grade students. (Note to self: The quality of this video is not as good as the one I made for "Read to Self." Use Flip cam from now on, not iphone.)

Work on Writing from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

And building writing stamina-

Friday, September 7, 2012

Daily 5 Doings

In preparation for our upcoming "Parent Connect" where our topic will be The Daily 5, I used Piktochart to create this infographic highlighting some of the main ideas of The Daily 5. I am fairly new to using infographics to organize and summarize information. I thought it was an incredibly useful exercise, requiring me to synthesize and evaluate the information from the book through the lens of our school community and philosophy of learning.

I've also been documenting the process in the classroom through photos, videos and tweets. I am experimenting with different tools and forms so that I can expand and hone my skills, as well as find what works best for me as the creator as well as what, if anything, speaks to my "audience."

Last week I played with the movie trailer theme in iMovie 11 to create this video of the students in the building stamina phase of read to self. 

The Daily 3 from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Stephanie also introduced work on writing to the students this week. She has done a stellar job of sharing on her classroom blog.

A Thought...

Your thoughts?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Launching the Daily 5

My professional goal for this year is to coach and support our 4th/5th grade language arts teacher, Stephanie,  in her goal, which is to implement a modified version of the Daily 5 (the Daily 3) with her 4th/5th grade students. 
The MJGDS teachers who read The Daily 5 this summer were enthusiastic and positive about this research-based method of structuring literacy instruction to support students in becoming independent readers and writers. 
We are off to an exciting start. Working together, we have begun identifying potential obstacles, brainstorming ways to meet those obstacles head on, and strategizing on how we will collaboratively collect data that will help us assess the impact of the Daily 3.

One thing that we have committed to doing is to document and share the process and reflections along the way. We started the "launch" this week, following the detailed process in the book.

This is also an opportunity for me to document and reflect on what it means to be a coach- how I am supporting both the teacher's process as well as being the "meta" for potential school wide implementation in the future.

This week, as Stephanie introduced the program to her students I took photos and video. I hope to be able to do this often. It is a time-consuming process, but I think it will prove worthwhile for a number of reasons. First of all, we are creating a resource for other teachers (inside and outside of our school) as well as interested parents. It also gives us the opportunity to reflect using something more concrete than our memories.

Read to Self from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Summer Reading: The Daily 5

For summer PD, teachers at our school were given a choice of books to read. Each teacher was required to read at least one of the four books, as well as to create a "project" of their choosing to show "evidence of learning." Projects will be shared during pre-planning week as part of book discussion groups. To see all of the book choices as well as more details and rationale of the summer assignment, read head of school, Jon Mitzmacher's post, "Summer Bloggin'."

My book choice was The Daily 5 by Gail Boushy and Joan Moser. I learned about The Daily 5 through my participation in the #educoach chat on Twitter. The following is my reflective blog post for the school ning, as well as my project. 

After reading the Daily 5, I decided to create a Daily 5 Pinterest Board to highlight components of the Daily 5 and how they are being implemented in classrooms. Creating the board was a good opportunity to dig deeper by reading blogs and websites of teachers who are using the Daily 5. I felt inspired as I put together a collection of ideas and resources that I felt were uniquely appealing to my sense of how I would want to implement the Daily 5. It also gave me the chance to play around with Pinterest, which was something I wanted to practice :-)
I also created this graphic showcasing the foundations of this approach to literacy. 

I think that what I most appreciate about the Daily 5 is summarized in this image. I look at those children, so engaged and content to be sharing a book. This is what I most hope to create and encourage for and in each of our students- a deep, personal love of all that is literacy- reading, writing, learning, sharing ideas, enjoying words and languages.
To my way of thinking, this also embodies the best of what we have been calling "21st century learning." We repeat the phrase "it's not about the tool, it's about the learning" in some form or another, again and again. But I think the Daily 5 provides a great breaking-off point. You could easily do the Daily 5 without using any tech tools or you could use lots of tech tools to provide great enhancements. The foundations of the Daily 5, are the same as the best examples of tech-infused learning: simply "purpose + choice = motivation."
I also loved the lesson using the different types and sizes of shoes to demonstrate "that we must pick books for our interest and purpose and ones that fit for us to be successful." I envision the ultimate classroom as an environment that nurtures each learner to reach his or her potential, inspires motivated, independent learning and allows for personalities to flourish. I believe that the overriding message of "21c learning" is that foundational literacies are more important than covering quantities of information or making sure that every student "knows" certain facts. I think that a system such as The Daily 5 holds a lot of potential for upgrading and differentiating the "literacy block" (reading, writing, spelling, vocab, etc).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Learning Spaces

At the beginning of this school year, teachers and students returned to school to find a beautifully renovated entrance area and office. Walls were painted with the school logo, thoughts about learning in both English and Hebrew and a beautiful mural. Everything felt spacious, open and new. The amazing thing was how the new space made me (and apparently a lot of people) feel.
In my classroom, the room formerly known as the computer lab, we also made changes this year, and that space also felt fresh and new. Spaces become stale when the same posters go on the walls year after year. The physical environment impacts how we feel, how we interact and how we learn.
We go to great lengths and expense to provide technology to our schools - hopefully in part because we see it as a means of empowering students to research, explore, experience, collaborate and more. Does your physical learning environment support that vision? How does it impact the process and flow of learning taking place?

Learning spaces should reflect our highest ideals about learning. In our classroom, which is now a shared space, we've given serious consideration to how the physical environment reflects our beliefs about learning. The ultimate vision for the use of technology in our school is, in the words of Chris Lehmann, for the tools to be "like oxygen: ubiquitous, invisible and necessary." Of course, we are not living this ideal, but the theory acts as a guide as we make decisions and try, always, to move forward.
Changes in Spaces, Structures and Schedules
  • We dismantled the computer lab and distributed the old desktop computers to the    classrooms
  • No longer do K-5 students have "technology" once a week as a "resource class." 
  • We have begun re-purposing the space as a hub for our mobile technologies. 
  • We've changed the name of the space from "computer lab" to "blogger's cafe."  
  • We grouped the tables to enable working together.
  • We tried to cover tables with brightly-colored map tablecloths to inspire thoughts of global connectedness, but we found the tablecloths were too slippery so we need to go back to the drawing board on this one.
  • We also put up a green screen for video production, however, it got very little use this year. 

We have also started working with a rubric to help guide us in making strategic upgrades. One of the  domains of the rubric is "learning environment" which includes the whole environment including, but not limited to, the physical space. 
The criteria for learning environment are:
  • physical space conducive to learning
  • resources meet learning needs
  • learning is engaging
  • students are self-directed
  • relationships/learning community

For a teacher looking to self-assess, the physical environment is an easy place to start. It is easy to look around your classroom through the lens of the rubric and see where simple changes can be made. Sometimes making external changes first, can also change the way we think about things. 
For example, a lower-level descriptor reads: "Walls are adorned with commercially produced products and posters." 
The next step up is walls that "serve as a showcase for displaying exemplary student work." 
At the highest level "walls serve as a canvas for documenting collective knowledge and learning processes."
It is easy to see how movement in just that level of the rubric could significantly change the way that students are involved in building the classroom learning community.
New multi-use space

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Quest for Quality

As this school year winds down, I'm reflecting on the big picture with thoughts of next year. One issue that I would like to bring to the level of discussion is the issue of quality student work. What constitutes quality for each individual student? How do we inspire it? How do we help students internalize it?
As a total aside: If you've read the classic "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (which I admit was a LONG time ago for me) it is largely about the quest to define the elusive nature of  what is "good" or "quality." In fact, the character Phaedrus, a teacher, becomes so obsessed with the question of quality that it drives him insane. :-)
In old-style school assignments- worksheets and tests- quality is not an issue. There is a right answer; either you have it or you don't. I think that, in many ways, this is one of the hardest things for teachers to let go. This type of feedback (percentage of correct answers) feels objective and secure, whereas assessing work that is meaningful, personal, creative and ongoing is more subjective and brings up uncertainty about the "grade"  (a concept which still carries much importance in our school and most others). 
Because I have been working with students on technology-rich projects, I have struggled with this concept for a long time, and I have some ideas, but no real answers. I love that I don't have to give a grade. It makes everything easier. However, some students need the motivation of a grade in order to perform. 
The book that has helped my thinking the most is "An Ethic of Excellence- Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students" by Ron Berger. I reference this book often and highly recommend it. It is an older book with no mention of educational technology. However, the principles that Berger used in his classroom to inspire students to internalize and strive for quality work, are very applicable to the type of shift that technology is mandating for all classrooms. 
The four principles are:
The overarching support for excellence in the classroom is a school wide culture of excellence. Students need to be helped to develop the habits of mind necessary for producing quality work. Like so many habits, it is not enough for students to be exposed during one school year. Structures need to be in place school wide in order for lasting change, learning and growth to take hold. 
The antithesis of this is the "I'm done" culture where students work in order to be "done." It's an emphasis on coverage and quantity, as opposed to depth and quality. I sometimes feel stuck here, and I've had a lot of individual discussions with teachers about how to overcome this. 

Some questions:
How do we create a school culture of excellence?
What external structures can support students' understanding and internalization of quality work?
How do we help students develop internal motivation to put forth the necessary effort to do high quality work?
Do we give our students enough time to do good work?
Can more integration between subjects and collaboration between teachers facilitate better student work?

A couple of thoughts:
As usual, I have more questions than answers. This is a topic that seems to arise in almost every post-planning/reflective conversation I have with teachers. I have tried several strategies to support student work, but I haven't found that magic bullet that leads to consistent quality. This is one area that I would like to devote to action-research: how I, as a "coach" can be helpful to teachers. 
  • Work that matters: How do we make the work meaningful without compromising curricular goals? Remember the Alan November TED Talk and the "digital learning farm?" School can't be a place where we park kids for the day until their real life begins. It is a delicate balance, though, between letting kids do only what they want and finding ways to bring new ideas to life. I have a vision that blogfolios will facilitate more meaningful work by providing a platform for students to publish and share their creations. 
  • Examples of excellence: Examples of excellence are key. Searching for and cataloging examples of excellence representing a variety of "products" at different developmental levels is one service that I can offer to teachers. As our students create more works, their excellent work will become part of our collection of examples. This may, potentially serve as a motivational tool. As part of the preparation for an activity, students should actively analyze and evaluate work samples of formats similar to what they might be producing.  
  • Public presentation: My vision is for our student blogfolios to provide a platform for public presentation of all work, as well as a document of each student's unique growth.  I am convinced of the importance of this piece; however, I don't think it is as simple as publish it online and get your "authentic audience." Although this is a nice idea in theory, it is harder than tweeting a link with #comments4kids. Students who want interaction, comments or an interested audience, really have to produce something worthy of interest. In the meantime, I think we need to continue to build the infrastructure and facilitate academic connections between students and teachers, students and parents, students and "subject-matter mentors," students and other students, etc. 
  • Critique: This is the one that I haven't figured out at all. How do we incorporate meaningful critique into our learning process? Ron Berger had real-world experts regularly provide critique to his students. For example, if they did an architecture project, he had an architect come in to the classroom and provide feedback to students. He also had students help one another in this way. I think this would be an example of where school wide structures could help support the process. For example, if students started with formal critiques in the lower grades, they would become used to this part of the process. I would like to spend more time next year learning about "critique" as part of the formal learning feedback loop. Is anyone interested in working on this with me?
  • Rubrics: Rubrics can play a role in giving students guidelines for what is expected. I know that a lot of teachers use rubrics with varying degrees of success. One interesting use of rubrics I witnessed this year was with Stephanie's 4th graders' use of blogging and commenting rubrics to assess their own and others' blog posts and comments. The more detailed and focused the rubric, the more helpful it can potentially be. For example, I knew a teacher who used a rubric for multimedia projects that had, as one of the criteria, that each slide contained original artwork with no white space. It sounds overly detailed, but her students artwork was some of the best I have seen. They took extra care because they didn't want to lose points on the rubric for leaving white space. Helping teachers create and use rubrics to support quality, might be another example of how, as a coach, I can support teachers. 
  • Types of work products, reflections, blogfolios: If a student chooses a test or worksheet with a 100% grade as a "best work sample" and their reflection is something to the effect of, "I know this is an example of my best work because I got a good grade" that is assessment of sorts, for us as teachers. If our goal is to foster independence and internal motivation, we have to find other ways of presenting findings about learning than just grades and test scores. This is another huge area of debate. I hear, quite frequently, that teachers feel that they are not preparing students for the future if they do not give tests and grades for every unit of work. I am interested in putting these theories to the test as well. I would love to set up an experiment where we assess students in a variety of ways to find out if and how assessment impacts learning. Any takers?
Or maybe I'm looking at it all wrong...
After I started writing this post, I remembered this blog post, Fail Forward, Move Forward, by Vicki Davis.
John Maxwell in his book Attitude 101 quotes a story from two artists David Bayles and Ted Orland about an art teacher who did an experiment with his grading system.

The ceramics teacher told the left half of the room that they would just be graded on the quantity of what they produced. If they had fifty pounds of pots on the last day, they'd get an "A," forty would get a "B" and so forth.

The right half of the room would be graded on "quality" and "needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A."

An interesting thing happened when it was time to grade.  The HIGHEST QUALITY came from the HIGH QUANTITY side of the room.  The author tells it like this:
"It seems that while the 'quantity' group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the 'quality' group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than gradiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

I think this makes a lot of sense, intuitively, and supports the idea that we learn through practice. I know that if I take a lot of photographs I am more likely to get one or two that I really like. That which we do the most, we will probably begin to do somewhat (or very) well. However, the context of a task like making pots might be different than a task like writing. Most successful writers describe a long process of creation, filled with drafts, edits and revision. 

What are your thoughts? Is consistent, high-quality work the goal? Or is working through failure and learning as a process the better goal? In either case, how to we recognize or quantify what is "good" and, more importantly, how do we help students recognize it?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

edJEWcon- First Reflection

We did it.
We had an idea, a vision. We dreamed it. We made it happen. edJEWcon- a learning conference, similar to Educon at Science Leadership Academy in  Philadelphia, but for Jewish Day Schools (who cannot attend Educon because it falls over Shabbat.)
Here are the words I shared in my introduction to the opening keynote:

We often talk about 21st century learning in terms of the skills needed to be successful in this technological world. One of those important skills is collaboration. edJEWcon is collaboration at its best. This conference began as a conversation between Silvia Tolisano, Jon Mitzmacher and myself. It grew to include Elaine Cohen of Schechter Network and Rachel Abrahams from the AVI CHAI Foundation. We appreciate not only their support, but their ideas, questions and push-back in the beginning stages. 
Rachel encouraged us to "think big" so we did- we dreamed about speakers of the caliber of Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Angela Maiers, as well as the idea of providing "toolkits" to the school teams that would attend. We are so grateful to AVI CHAI for their generous sponsorship of edJEWcon.  
All of you sitting here today, 21 school teams and 14 partners from a variety of Jewish agencies, are our collaborators as well. Without you making the trek to Jacksonville from all over the United States and Canada, there would be no edJEWcon. And of course, the reason we are hosting the conference here is because all of our MJGDS teachers, students and parents are partners on this learning journey.  
The next step is to reach out, through the tools you have received in your toolkits and brought with you, through the blogs on the edJEWcon website, through Twitter and through other digital tools- to document and reflect on what you are learning- to collaborate with each other and to share with others who are not in attendance either at the conference or at a particular session. edJEWcon is collaborative, co-created learning. The whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. 
Collaborative, co-created learning. My big takeaway is almost a full-circle spiral. I "knew" it to begin with, but now I understand it in a new way as I experienced something extraordinary. All leadership is collaborative, co-creation. No one can create anything extraordinary without tapping into the brilliance, hard work and passion of others. There is no creation without people. 

edJEWcon was an idea. 
It was a lot of work. 
edJEWcon was a website, a Google form, a Twitter feed, a whole lot of emails. But for all the preparations, edJEWcon was nothing without the people. People who came. People who helped. People who shared and learned and tweeted and connected. People are the magic that breathe life into an idea. 

This dovetails with Angela's inspirational closing keynote, "Using Technology R.I.G.H.T." Using technology isn't about the technology, it's about the people. Social networking- about the people. Teaching and learning- yes, it's about the people. 
There is lots more to reflect upon in detail, including the keynotes, but for now I want to thank all the people (and there were many) who supported and breathed life into edJEWcon- from the very beginning until right now (which is not the end by any means).