31 December 2010

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

Any teacher will tell you that the first day of school feels more like "The New Year" than December 31st. It seems unlikely that a new school year will ever be rung in the way we do with a calendar year. A hangover and a brand new group of enthusiastic students would not seem to be a good match. However, as the days grow longer again, so do hopes and dreams for the future.

I wish you all the best in 2011. I know it isn't easy out there---and it doesn't look like the upcoming year will bring an end to all the financial and policy strife for schools and families. As for me, I've been looking at the current situation (at work and at home) as an opportunity to pare down and figure out what is most important to me. What are the critical components of good work? What sorts of things do I need at home? Since the job market, economy, and housing situations are all catawampus at the moment, it's a good time to let anything extraneous go...and pick a spot to land.

So here's to safe landings in 2011. Raise a glass to new beginnings and the opportunities that come with change. May the next 12 months be full of hope for all of us.

27 December 2010

A Problem Like Maria

Over the years, I have spent considerable effort in developing a "poker face" for my job. This has come in handy in a variety of situations---stories from educators that would make your hair stand on end, a misinformed politician espousing a view on how to fix education, ridiculous meetings, and so forth. In all situations, I must try to be gracious. I am not always successful, but I do my best to keep emotion or reactions from showing on my face---my last resort to be furious note-taking so I can avoid eye contact or risk the chance that I am going to say something that will get me in trouble.

But I also use these opportunities to watch the other players at the table. There are some with well-cultivated poker faces of their own. You learn to find one another and perfect side glances and other signals when the attention of others is focused elsewhere. And those times where I am not a major player at the table...when what's at stake isn't mine...I enjoy the opportunity to watch body language all the more.

Awhile back, there was a meeting of mucky-mucks. A very impassioned woman---who I'll call "Maria" for the purposes of this post---attended in order to testify about her program. Also in attendance was her Mother Superior. These were not two peas in a pod. Maria had major attention-seeking behaviors. Mother was more conservative in approach, and although her verbal skills had polish, she had absolutely no poker face. Each time Maria was about to speak, you could see Mother Dear cringe with embarrassment. Maria was oblivious of anything happening around her. She never directly answered a question---instead choosing to talk about what she wanted. She never noticed how some of the people she needed to sway at the table pulled out their phones to check messages or collected paperwork together as if signaling they wanted to leave. She went on and on and on about things, and while I have no doubt she spoke from the heart, the mucky-mucks treated the end of diatribes like one might treat a random story from a toddler inserted into an adult conversation. Mother was not happy, her face wrinkled with displeasure...her body tense.

I have to wonder if Mother Superior will solve the problem that is Maria. Big Momma is good with things and stuff, but not so good with people; however, it is her job to make sure that the most competent people are working for her and represent both her and the program well. If Maria isn't doing that, then she has to do something about that. Maria likes attention---she thrives on being looked at as unique. Mother must find ways to give that to Maria...compliment her where possible and appropriate. But Mother also has to make it clear what is and is not acceptable in terms of communications. She needs to look for a seminar to send Maria or watch some video clips together that show good and not so good examples of how to behave in meetings. She must have the hard conversation about what she's noticing, what the job requires, and what she expects. If Maria can't close the gap (after some time and coaching to make the changes), then she needs to be replaced. Sorry, Mother, but you're paid to do that job. Ignoring Maria (which appears to be the current strategy) is not going to make her go away. If anything, she's just going to scream louder anytime you give her an audience.

I admit that I have my own failings. I am not always the forgive-and-forget type. I don't like people who don't follow through on their promises---I don't ever trust them again. I absolutely hate the sort of politics that have to be navigated and all of the indulgences to be paid in order to get something done...and I know it sometimes shows on my face. I just hope I never become a problem like Maria, failing teachers and kids in the process.

22 December 2010

Muddying the Bathwaters

John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning, was the keynote speaker at a recent conference I attended. The book represents years of work reviewing educational research (over 800 meta-analyses) and determine effect sizes of various factors which influence student learning. These include things outside the classroom (e.g., television, siblings) and inside the school (e.g., various instructional models, leadership styles). A couple of things stuck out at me during the presentation---and I am most anxious to have a copy of the book to read.

If it's been awhile since you had to do anything with descriptive statistics, an effect size is a number that describes the strength of a relationship between two variables in a population. This is different from the significance that might describe a particular effect. Effect size is scaled from -1 to +1.

At zero, there is no relationship between the variables. So, think about this as something like trying differentiated instruction in the classroom and seeing absolutely no change in student learning. Those things which decrease student learning (more tv) would reach toward the negative end of the scale and other things (reduced class size) would reach toward the upper end. Hattie's argument, however, is that comparing an effect to zero is the wrong comparison. Why?

Because his research shows that the average effect size---all of the ed research out there put together---is .4. So, for the most part doing something...anything...is better than nothing. But more importantly, we should eliminate strategies that are less than .4. Shouldn't we look for things which will at least get better than average results?

Hattie moved through a list of 120 variables, pausing here and there to talk about one in depth. One of these was class size. Does the graphic below surprise you?

What do we see here? Reducing class size does have a positive impact on student learning; however, it is less than average. Does that mean we shouldn't spend money on lowering teacher-pupil ratios? (Primary teachers, I can hear you screaming from here...) The answer is "sorta." As with anything, the numbers don't tell the whole story. The next question is "Under what conditions does reducing class size have the greatest impact?" or "Why does reducing class size not have a greater effect on student learning?" Basically, teachers who have had professional development in how to work with a class of students above (or below) the standard number have a greater positive impact. Others just teach the same way, regardless of the number of students in the room, and very little difference is made. 

This same sort of questioning could apply to lots of things that fall below the magical .4: differentiated instruction, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, and so on. There may be conditions which allow them to be greatly effective, but based on what we have in the research right now---nope. I would guess this is why anecdotal evidence drives so many individual teacher decisions. This might be okay---or it could be dangerous.

Here is another example from Hattie:

This graphic compares two broad leadership styles: principals who push a vision...and principals who function as instructional leaders in their schools. (My hunch is that some of you are thinking you have a principal who is "none of the above.") I found this particular comparison interesting, mainly because those who push back the hardest against the reform movement are the ones who believe having vision trumps all. Obviously, there is something positive---you do want leadership that can inspire and bring together a school. But that is not enough to make even an above average difference in student learning. In fact, it's slightly less effective than reducing class size. Schools need administrators who understand and walk the talk of high quality curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Going on and on about your vision isn't really helping kids.

For those of you concerned that Hattie only considered test scores, he didn't. There are lots of ways to look at student learning---his task was to synthesize them. What things make the biggest difference? High quality feedback on student work, strong teacher-student relationships, among others. You would not be surprised at what makes the top 10. The surprises are all below the .4 mark. While I wouldn't advocate for throwing any instructional babies out with the <.4 bathwater, it would seem that these deserve some careful thought before further implementation. Time and resources (both human and material) are so precious. We need to make the best use of these that we can.

19 December 2010

Mixing It Up

Earlier this month, I debuted a presentation on data mashups. I have presented on data visualization tools before (and will again at the ASCD Conference in March), but this newest incarnation is really more focused on ideas for advanced users. It is a response to inquiries I've had over the past year where an administrator, district data guru, or assessment director says, "I really need a tool that will let me do x with my data." So, I've been keeping an eye out for new things that might fit the bill. Meanwhile, as I've talked to vendors about their product offerings, I've been continually disappointed that no one is putting together a package that educators really want. Sure, schools are buying stuff---but doesn't mean that they like what they're getting.

So, let's have a look at some of the collection I introduced this year...

Regulars here are already familiar with my interest in the Excel Sparklines add-in and building digital gradebooks that communicate a variety of data. You might also be interested in having a look at BeGraphic, which allows you make all sorts of visualizations in both Excel and PowerPoint. There is a free "lite version" available. Lots of opportunities here for design and communication.

We looked at a variety of tools in Google. Google Fusion allows you to take the data you upload into GoogleDocs and create a variety of visualizations. You can see a variety of applications in their Example Gallery, but for my purposes, I wanted to show the same data set in different settings. On this map, each dot represents a school district in Washington which has 10th graders. Not all districts are represented, due to FERPA restrictions. If you click on a location, the popup box will contain a variety of information about the district---all of it pulled from the GoogleDoc.

In addition, we looked at the same data as a motion graph. I am not able to embed it below (I just have a screenshot), but if you follow the link, you can play with it to your heart's content. Again, you have the same data options as in Fusion, the information is just represented differently and we can watch how things change over time.

You might also be interested in Google Refine, for cleaning data sets or even the Public Data Explorer to look at your data from a broader angle. While not a Google tool, the DataMasher also has some nice options for mixing and matching data sets.

I have shared MapAList on this blog. Here is the same data set as above, but using this tool:

There are some reasons why a school or district might prefer this over the maps Fusion can draw. MapAList will allow you to use different pins based on certain types of data (Fusion only allows for heat maps) and is much better at pinpointing location; however, it will not display as many types of data as Google Fusion. However, these are meant to be visualizations. So, if you can't adapt the appearance of the map to reflect data points, I'm not sure how useful a communication you can build.

The big winner of the day? Hands down, it was Microsoft Pivot. I showed only the first half (~3 minutes) of the TED talk below, and I swear I thought half the audience was going to sprint out the door to go try it.

The examples shown in the video are not school-related; but it is not a big leap to picture students (instead of Sports Illustrated covers), data, and the ability to sort and visualize what's happening. We're going to try getting a users group together. I find that very exciting.

Do you have new tools you're using or ideas you're implementing? Share them in the comments!

    18 December 2010

    Cooking Something Up

    Fair warning: This post has nothing to do with education. It's the holidays and my interests seem to wander into more personal areas during these last two weeks of December when news is slow and nights are long. Unlike my classroom days, I no longer have time off during the holidays, so my moments away from work are even more precious.

    I have always loved to cook. However, being single (or even a double, at times) poses some recipe challenges. Most cookbooks and cooking shows assume that you have at least 4 people in your home and that you want enough leftovers for a second meal. If this isn't you, then you either look for recipes you can cut down, make peace with food going to waste, or suck it up and eat the same thing for a week. These really aren't good options, in my opinion. So, as I look at Christmas treats and upcoming meal planning, I thought I'd pass along my own solutions.
    • Make the full recipe, but choose it wisely. Sure, you can make half, which save the frustration of eating the same meal over and over or dealing with food waste---but you're not saving yourself any time. Prep/Cooking will still take the same for 1/2 recipe. Pick a recipe that will freeze well: pasta, side dishes (potatoes, rice, risotto...). Prepare the whole thing, divide into individual serving dishes (I use corning ware, but foil works, too), and freeze what you don't want for later. Just pull out the portions and reheat when you're ready for something fresh.
    • Muffin tins are great tools for freezing individual servings. Soup? Pour it in the tin, freeze, then put the chunks in a freezer safe bag. Put your meatloaf in the muffin tin, bake, and freeze leftovers. 
    • I just learned that you can par-bake bacon (400 degrees F for 15 minutes) on a foil-lined pan, drain and cool the meat before freezing. Later, pull out however many sticks you want and microwave them for 30 seconds to finish the cooking process. 
    • Got a cookie dough you love and that doesn't come in a flavour you can buy in the refrigerated aisle? Do it up right---make the whole recipe and then freeze individual dough bites on a cookie sheet, then baggie them up. Pull out what you want and bake when you need. This also works with bread dough. Just portion and freeze between the first and second rise (or get frozen dough that is already portioned so you can just use one or two pieces at a time).
    • I know meat looks expensive, but per serving, it's a great deal. Don't want a whole pot roast, salmon fillet, or pork loin? Buy it anyway...portion it out...baggie it up...and freeze.Whole chickens are cheap. Roast them, then use the leftover meat in a casserole to freeze. You really don't have to be stuck with leftovers.

    Each month, I choose 2 - 3 recipes (e.g. chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, risotto cakes). Ingredients usually cost no more than $50 and I spend one afternoon preparing them. For the next few weeks, I have plenty of quick meals or mix-n-match options with salads/veggies or meat portions from the freezer. I get a variety of fresh homemade food with very little investment or effort. I also end up with almost no food waste.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to go make some Christmas cookies...

    12 December 2010

    Wake Up

    I've been unloading thoughts about online safety this past week. I won't claim that this post is a Forrest Gump-like attempt to be "all I have to say about that," but perhaps I can put the topic to rest for a bit. A lot of these thoughts were pushed forward by a webinar I sat in on. It was not, as billed, about making one's "Internet Use Policy Social Media Proof." Instead, it was the most twisted promotion of an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) I have ever seen mixed with a commercial for a web security system.

    Risks of social media included "inappropriate language" (guess the presenter has never been to a library) and big screens on newer handheld devices (no explanation...not sure why size matters in this context). The "Information Security Manager" from Duval County Public Schools bragged about how every Monday, he goes to the schools to find the top 10 violators of their AUP to suspend for three days. Substitute teachers are never given access to the network. Want to allow your students to use their cell phones to capture images of a lab in progress? That will earn you a disciplinary review by HR. Teachers are also forbidden from commenting on blogs...unless they have prior approval of comments.

    I could go on, but for those of you with strong stomachs, you can go watch the recorded webinar. I have several problems with the Draconian approach to an AUP---but I especially object to the district thinking that it has the right to reach into teachers' homes and tell them what they can say and do online while there.

    You also have to love the conclusions posted:

    I am especially fond of #1. That's Teacher with a Big T! Starting from an assumption of positive intentions is definitely not a norm in Duval County Public Schools. Apparently, we teachers go to college so we can get into classrooms and access Child Porn (there go the caps again). If you work in that district, it is assumed that children need to be protected from you and that you need to be trained on what the IT staff believes is acceptable.

    The big takeaway from all of this: Teachers, wake up!

    IT security has its place. There are all sorts of sensitive data about students and staff which do need to be protected. There are networks to tend. Malware is a real threat. Bandwidth is a commodity that does have to be managed. There are federal regulations to meet---but they are actually very minimal. The FCC only requires them to filter out "potentially harmful images," and that is only for students---teachers have no restrictions in terms of access (as far as the feds are concerned).

    Wake up.

    Your IT department should not be deciding for your students or you what "inappropriate language" is for the content you teach. Your IT department should not be the TSA of your school district---telling your school board that every teacher is a threat to be groped in a security line. Your IT department, staffed by people who likely have not had their own classrooms, should not be defining what your role is as a teacher (i.e. we're all pedophiles). Most of all, your IT department should not be developing policy that tells you which websites you can access at home, who you connect with, and how you participate in your (online) community.

    Wake up, teachers, before it is too late. Wake up, school boards. Wake up administrators. Quit assuming that your IT staff knows best when it comes to curriculum decisions. Stop allowing them to frighten you into thinking their ideas are more important than the needs of student learning---or that there is a Boogey Man waiting to steal children at every Web site. It's time to quit excusing yourself from discussions about Internet security because you think you won't understand the technical part---make IT explain it to you. Your unions will not help you with this. It is up to you to stand up for yourselves and for the students in your classroom.

    You can do it.

    10 December 2010

    As Time Goes By

    Six years ago today, I started this Little Blog That Could. So far, we've had:
    • 1510 posts
    • 370,245 visitors
    • 3 template designs (the first was a Blogger template now lost to the ether, but the original custom version can be seen here)
    • 3 URLs
    Other statistics have not been tracked---like the changes to my sidebar, profile, and minor edits to posts. I have watched the Edusphere undergo some significant shifts over the years. We tell kids all the time to mind their "digital footprint" because online content lasts forever---but the 'net really is an impermanent place. So many of my early blog friends have disappeared. Time and space have different meanings and rules in this world.

    Still other attributes of this space cannot be measured, such as the support from Readers and all the ways you've pushed my thinking and helped me grow in my work as an educator. Some of you have been with me for a long time. You've seen me through all sorts of shifts in my job, challenges in my personal life, and many reasons to celebrate. Thank you for all of that.

    I (and others) have fought for this space, had it celebrated and showcased, lost sleep over it---but no matter what, I can't help but return here to share my messy thoughts and learn from you in return. You can't see it, but as I write this, I have some champagne at the ready. I will raise my glass to you and all that this little thread on the web has meant to me. To "What It's Like on the Inside." Long may she live.

    08 December 2010

    Space: The Final Frontier

    I sat in on a horrifying webinar last week---more details will be forthcoming, but I wanted to share one piece and put out some food for thought to see if anyone wants to nibble.

    We could sit here and poke holes in all of these, but I really want to raise some issues around Item 4. I realize that the words "should not" leave the door open a bit. My hunch, based on listening to the tech director from Duval County Public Schools, is that he really means "must not."

    If so, I have a problem with this. My beef is that the district (and many others like it) are making an assumption that an online space should have different rules from meatspace. In other words, there is likely no Board Policy that a teacher and student shouldn't have a "social" connection through church, civic organizations, summer jobs (how many of us have hired students to babysit?), and so forth. What's the real difference if I remind a student via Facebook that there's a test next week vs. bumping into her at the grocery store and reminding her? How does a district that maintains its own social media presence (Duval has Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr accounts) regulate ethical use of the same tools for individuals?

    Sure, there's a risk of the Creepy Treehouse effect in the online environment...but I can think of plenty of teachers who have been a little on the eager side of being "friends" with students in the real world. I grew up in a town so small you could hardly swing a proverbial cat without having an interaction with a teacher outside of school. I might mention that this was long before Teh Interwebs were around---and I can think of several instances where the...relationships...between teachers and students would be considered inappropriate. My point is simply that you don't need the web to be social or have a questionable interaction. If you have a Code of Professional Conduct, why does an online space need a separate policy at all?

    Time to Grow Up

    I'm a firm believer that adults are responsible for shaping classroom instruction. This does not mean that students are excused from learning or should have no voice in getting what they need to reach that goal. But at the end of the day, educators and parents need to provide direction and support to students.

    If you've been around this space awhile, you know that I don't think kids should be used as teaching tools. Struggling students need the expertise that comes with a teacher's understanding of how to break down tasks, alternative curriculum materials, and other supports. Other students need direction in how to extend and deepen their knowledge. None of this is new, but I am seeing a different sort of variant these days: Let the kids be the experts for tech integration.

    Like the online safety considerations mentioned in my previous post, a lot of the "Aw, just let the kids teach it" mindframe comes from adults abdicating their responsibilities. Since kids know how to text message, why should I bother to learn? Google? Kid stuff. Blogs? Wikis? Too weird sounding---not my thing. Technology is changing too fast...I can't keep up.

    I will say that "technology" is fairly diverse. I'm not a luddite, but I am definitely no expert on all the tools (both hardware and software) that are out there. I choose to be ignorant of most things Apple related because I don't agree with their form of censorship...but I can use a Mac (if I have to). When I do presentations involving cell phones, I am invariably asked for help with phones I have never seen before---and often struggle with. I do think it's a benefit to the classroom to have students who have backgrounds with a variety of tools so that they can help troubleshoot (or show new tricks and hacks). I don't have any issue with drawing upon that sort of expertise from students in the classroom.

    I draw the line (again) at pedagogy. When we assume that students are ready to decide how the technology serves the learning goals of others in the room, I have a problem. If you're the teacher, then you need to provide that guidance. Again, it doesn't mean you have to know every thing about every tool---but do choose two or three and learn them well. Kids can help other kids troubleshoot, but you need to make the decisions about the classroom purpose for using them.

    06 December 2010

    Roles and Responsibilities

    I have been thinking about online safety a lot as of late. Some of that has been related to one of the assessments we're developing. Another part has been the recent experience of a friend of mine with her teen daughter and anonymous harassment from afar. I also attended a webinar about "safe" use of social media in schools last week that actually made me nauseated (my colleague best summed up the experience when she said she felt dirty afterward). And then there was a thought-provoking on how Parents Struggle with Cyberbullying in Sunday's NYT.

    I'll get into the specifics of the webinar later this week, but for now, let me say that my takeaway from all of these experiences in the past week is simply that there is no common definition of what it means to be "safe" online---and this is creating a lot of strife. One of the most striking things about the NYT article is that in each case, in spite of bullies being caught/punished, nearly no one was very happy with the outcome. Some parents thought the other parents should apologize. Other parents didn't think that what their kid did was a big deal. Parents who tried to help their children solve the problem often made the situation worse.

    And schools? For the most part, they stayed out of it. I find this particularly interesting. Considering the number of stories (and lawsuits) about schools stepping in to punish what students post on Facebook or keep in their cell phones, it would appear that school administration only becomes involved when it serves their own own purpose. When a family brings up something from the outside, districts are reluctant to become involved. Most Acceptable Use Policies and filtering in schools are designed to squelch these conversations. If we block kids from Facebook, blogs, and wikipedia at school...we don't have to deal with the fallout at home, right? Here, too---we do not agree about what safe use of the Internet is.

    All of this is really a cover for some more difficult things to define. One of the speakers in last week's webinar kept referencing "inappropriate language" on the Internet. I kept saying to my screen, "What does that mean? Who decides? Have you never been to a library?" Ditto for "obscene images" and "pornography." Somewhere in your school district, someone is deciding what these things are---and it probably isn't you. While I find it unlikely that we would all agree on what these things mean, I don't know that we'll ever get to Internet Safety without some guidelines around these.

    At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of adults to make good decisions on behalf of our students (and include their input). What I see more and more of when it comes to technology is abdication of this role by the parent. My friend described the relief her daughter felt when the child's Facebook page was completely taken down and texting removed from the cell phone. The NYT article includes a similar story of relief on the part of the child and recognition by the parent that kids are not ready for shouldering all of the responsibilities that come with an online world. They need us as adults to step up for guidance. Will our schools ever be ready?

    02 December 2010

    Island Hopping

    A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that West Potomac High was scrapping its new grading practices initiative. The policy was "mastery-based," or to use the vernacular around here: standards-based. But teachers, parents, and students upset by the change have forced the school to go back to its former grading policy.
    Parents and teachers had complained in recent weeks about the new policies, implemented this school year, that largely replaced F's on first-quarter report cards and gave teachers the option of allowing students to retake tests when they were caught cheating. Friday's reversal surprised many of those who had raised objections.

    "People were shocked, elated - hopeful that finally their concerns were being addressed," said Kate Van Dyck, a leader of Real World, Real Grades, which formed in opposition to the policies. "We're pleased that there've been some changes made, but we will continue to monitor this very closely in the future and expect to see opportunities for real community input prior to the implementation of policies."


    I can only armchair quarterback here, but my hunch is that this policy, while well-intentioned, was top-down. There are few---and perhaps no---topics more taboo in a school than grading. These things must be done delicately, as Oz's Wicked Witch pointed out.

    I don't know that wholesale change at a school or district level is possible with grading---or, if it is, the process is something that evolves and becomes a norm over many years. In between, I think you get a lot of lip service to one while the old practices stay on in an underground sort of way.

    What I am finding is that there are lots of highly passionate islands of practice out there. Every week, I learn about a few more teachers who are at least interested in exploring different possibilities with grading and dipping a toe in the waters of change. And as glacial as this process may be, I have decided that I'm okay with that. I think this sort of change needs to be infectious. One enthusiastic teacher in a school will no doubt find another. Again, this isn't speedy...but it is a more sustainable option than mandates.

    The longer I have a balcony view of things from a state-level job, the more and more convinced I am that change is really about personal relationships...and all the better if they are one to one and face to face. And the edubeast is so large that it really prohibits these sorts of interactions---except at the teacher-to-teacher level. As much as I would love to sit down and have a beverage with every teacher in the state and kick around topics, it's unlikely that will happen. But, I can support a few who then connect with others. Maybe that's all we need.

    23 November 2010

    Students Can Do No Better Than the Work They Are Given

    A few weeks ago, I helped a high school kid with some chemistry homework. The student attends one of the top schools in the state---if you just go by test scores. It draws from a upper middle class - downright wealthy population: a place where children want for nothing.

    Or perhaps I have been mistaken about that. The quality of work assigned to the student was abysmal.

    There was a word search for element names. A. Word. Search. Kids were going to be graded on it. The student also had a "game" where they were given a clue (rather obscure in most cases) and had to figure out the name of the element. If you were 15-years old today, would you think that "Osmium" goes with "Donny and Marie's family"? I told the kid to hit "teh Googles" for those answers. She looked shocked at such a suggestion---as if I'd just told her to cheat. I tried to nicely state that a poor assignment---which will contribute nothing toward her understanding of the elements---is not worth her suffering. In truth, it's not worth her attention, either, but for a student who was already struggling, there was no need to avoid playing the grade game with the easy stuff.

    Lest you think I had been called in because the student couldn't do the word search, I can assure you that this was not the case. There had been previous homework assigned for another chemistry concept (specific heat) and the student had not been able to grasp it. We looked at that homework, too. They were problem sets. The teacher had marked some of the ones which were wrong (the scores on the front of the paper made no sense in connection with the red x's elsewhere), but had provided no comments. Most of the problems were okay---about where you'd expect to see them aimed for student knowledge and abilities---but there were a few which were ridiculous. So, the student and I went through things as best we could. We did find some common errors on her part and made a list of "things to remember" so she could self-check along the way.

    When our session was over, I was good and steamed at the teacher. I can't believe he's getting away with such crappy assignments in a school where performance is lauded and helicopter parents are de rigeur. But then, the time I spent in a similar school was no different. The vast majority of teachers were quite lazy about the quality of work they required because they could be. What I mean is, when your class is full of privileged children, a teacher doesn't have to work quite as hard. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't---or that all teachers in that situation take advantage---just that those kids have had all sorts of access to other learning experiences (relatives in a variety of professions, trips to the zoo or cultural events, etc.) that they bring with them. Their background knowledge will carry them as far as the standards prescribe. And if you're measured by test scores, it's far enough. The teacher doesn't have much of a gap to address.

    But the broader issue for me is that this guy is giving homework a bad name.

    There seems to be quite a bit of homework-bashing going on in the Edusphere this fall. There are some good reasons for this---especially if a word search is keeping your family from spending time together. I can think of any number of poor assignments teachers give (and yes, I've assigned them, too). But if we could strip away the stupid stuff, the need the for homework---the need for practice---would still be there. We do not expect drama students or athletes or musicians to perform solely based upon their in-class experience. Should we expect the same for reading, math, or other concepts? We need to change the focus of the conversation from "Ban homework" to "Ban poorly constructed assignments." 

    I couldn't do anything for the student with the word search in terms of making that problem go away. I did talk with the mom some, gave her some coaching in terms of what to ask the teacher and how to phrase things. It may or may not make a difference, but I hope it will cause the teacher to think a little bit before he pulls out the next ancient worksheet in the file to hand to students. He has great students, no doubt. They, and all students, deserve great opportunities to show what they know.

    21 November 2010

    Slow Down, You Crazy Child

    Doyle and I flirted with the idea of putting in a proposal for Educon on the "Slow Teaching Movement." I won't attempt to speak for Dr. D., but for me, the idea was generated from a post last spring when I had more or less had it with the Tech Zealot constituency. For those of you who read Doyle's blog, you know that he is focused on experience---his own observations and interactions with the world as well as the ones he wants for students. The Tech Zealot community---many of whom flock to Educon---is not. On one hand, it would seem important to remind them that it is okay for kids to do offline things. We should encourage student explorations that involve every sense, from the way a book feels in your hands when you read it to how planting and tending a garden is not the same as a simulation. Experiencing an exhibit at a museum is far different from seeing/hearing it on a flat screen. We should really think about slowing down what happens in the classroom and give students the time they need to immerse themselves in learning one piece at a time. Maybe it's time to push back a bit on the digital revolution and put tech in its proper place---as a tool, not a goal.

    I've come to realize in the last few months that the Tech Zealots have a viewpoint so entrenched that they are unable to hear anything but their own whiny echo. Therefore, there's no point in spending my time and money on Educon. There are plenty Champions-of-the-Things to deal with in my own back yard.

    I was thinking about all of this again this morning after reading the NYT piece on Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. The article illustrates how some students are "caught between two worlds...one that is virtual and one that with real-life demands." The student who is the main subject of the article observes that after getting a computer and Internet access, he "realized there were choices. Homework wasn’t the only option.” Hilarity ensues as technology is portrayed as a necessary evil. Parents are unwilling to encroach too much on how their children use it ("If you’re not on top of technology, you’re not going to be on top of the world."), educators want to tame it for the classroom, and kids are learning to negotiate how much GPA to sacrifice in order to gain time on Facebook.

    I have not read the research referenced in the article---I can't comment on its rigor. It seems to be in line with similar research I've seen. The comments are familiar, too...although I wonder if families living in poverty would say the same things. But, I do have a couple of takeaways.

    First, parents need to realize that they are the adults in the parent-child relationship. If your child is staying on the computer until the wee hours and updating their Facebook status at 2 a.m., then move the computer to a family area and insist on boundaries regarding its use. Help kids learn how to manage their attention and budget their time, if they are struggling to do so. It is your task to guide their choices. Don't use the presence of a cell phone or iPad to excuse yourself from that.

    The bigger message for me is about the classroom, because educators can be enablers, too. For much of my career, I had conversations with kids about "doing the difficult thing." Sometimes it was not dropping an advanced class. Sometimes it was completing a project...or trying out for a spot on a sports team. The point was to help a student understand the power of not giving up. Maybe you don't always finish the way you dream it will be---but you live through it and learn something about yourself in the process. I wonder if our fervor to embrace the newer and faster, that we are forgetting the benefits of wallowing in experience. How do we slow things down in the classroom so that students can "soak" in the learning and put technology in a supporting role?

    13 November 2010


    Recently, I was at a meeting that ended when one of the organizers said, "Well, I got what I needed." I immediately had flashbacks to a couple of really bad dates. All that was missing was the sound of a zipper.

    I bit the inside of my lip and looked down at the table, struggling not to laugh at the sheer absurdity and abuse of "leadership" embedded in that statement. I've been thinking about this and other non-examples ever since.

    I don't want to be around leaders who don't care about the personal relationships they build with others. I'm not saying that you have to be friends with everyone. You don't have to spend time together outside of the workplace. But if you have no interest in people for who they are---if you never ask about their family, hobbies, travel/holiday plans, or something---if you are all automaton and no humanity---I will have little respect for your office goals. We are not our jobs. If you can't treat the people who work for you better than that, don't be surprised when you don't get the results you're looking for.

    A position of leadership can make for a very full calendar. Don't add things to it if you have no intention of following through. Don't tell people you think their work is important and you're excited about participating, only to never show up (and never apologize for the absence). Sure---unexpected events arise. Double-bookings happen. Meetings get moved in time, scope, and space. People get sick. Sometimes your boss will make the decision about priorities. These are realities that should be accommodated. But at least be gracious enough to communicate with others about your plans and choices.

    Most of all, don't be the leader who thinks they have all the answers and never listens. If you really do have the answers you want, don't call a pretend meeting because you think others will feel better having "input." We can see through that. A couple of months ago, we invited a "leader" from another division to get some background about our assessment process. And after she'd moved the meeting twice (the first time to a date neither of us were available; and the second one to a time well after the end of my workday), she spent the first 15 minutes yapping at us about what she wanted and needed. So not impressed with that. There was no attempt to seek to understand---and several of the pieces of information we'd prepared went back to the office with us. It was quite obvious that her own selfish interests were all that could ever matter to her.

    The problem, of course, is that most of us are stuck having to work with leadership like this at one point or another. Someone who is sterile, selfish, or lacks integrity has likely been that way for a long time. Professional development or a directive from higher up in the food chain is not going to change those qualities. What can you do? Here are my strategies:
    • Do good work. Do it for better reasons than what an incompetent boss provides. Do it in ways that get you noticed outside of your workspace and connect you to others with your values. 
    • Laugh---a lot.
    • Be the sort of example you wish the leadership would set. It won't change them, but it will change the variety of relationships you have and create a space away from the ridonkulousness of whoever thinks they're in charge. 
    • Minimize your contact with poor leadership. This isn't always possible---we can't ignore meeting requests just because someone is a jerk---but go with some way to occupy your hands and mind while the clock ticks away and the "leader" thinks everything is ducky. Do your seat time and make no promises---then get out and play and do something that makes you feel alive and significant. Afterward, go back and do the job you know needs to be done.
    I will, unfortunately, be required to repeat my experience meeting with the organizers mentioned at the start of this post. But there is something very freeing in learning how to disconnect myself from their self-important chatter. After all, I don't work for them. I work for the teachers and children in this state. And they don't have time for such nonsense.

    11 November 2010

    The Flock

    I'm deeper than knee-deep in assessment development at the moment---both my creative energy and the one set aside for writing will continue to be focused elsewhere for a few more weeks. If there is one point that was driven home to me more than any other this week, it is that it is even more critical to get things done right in the six months or so we have left on this project. Legislatures are fickle things: Their budget needs from biennium to biennium are never the same.This may be the one and only cycle we have time and money to create assessments.

    My work is the youth at the table amongst older and more experienced assessments. It's a bit like going for tea with one's old biddy aunts---the jealous ones who are passive-aggressive in their reminders that one day, you will be just as wrinkled and saggy as they are. These sadder-but-wiser assessments developed nearly half a decade before us are starting to show significant signs of aging. Alas, there is no funding for facelifts and tummy tucks, the Legislature having turned its fickle eyes elsewhere in the intervening years. All of this a healthy reminder for me to build classroom tools that can stay toned and fit---to not just do what feels good now, but keep an eye on the future.

    This is not simple. In fact, it's rather heavy. Whatever faces the outside world must be the very best it can be: meaningful learning experiences, deeply aligned to standards, and reflecting best practices in instruction and assessment (including Universal Design, interventions, and enrichment). Instructions must be crystal clear and ready to be interpreted by pre-service teachers and 40-year classroom veterans alike. Supporting materials have to be flexible enough for the range of Internet filters, bandwidth, and ability levels. Professional development materials need to be rich enough to support a single teacher in a remote district or one involved in department or PLC work in an urban area.

    Can we do it? Other than having to breathe into a paper bag now and then, I'm starting to think that yes, we can. I have such an amazing group of teachers to work with. Their vision of what they want to do for their peers is breathtaking in its ambition and their commitment unwavering. We will make it happen.

    I'm in this odd little space at the moment as I work over the first drafts. Each assessment is different and has its own personality. Some are easy to raise into independence. Others are real stinkers to work with and test my patience. I am sure that, like a good parent, I am supposed to say that I love them all the same...but I've never been much for doing what is expected. I am brooding the most extraordinary little flock of assessments in all the land...and am anxious to introduce them to you in a few months.

    29 October 2010

    Then and Now

    According to Blogger, this is my 1500th post: a pittance compared to Bora, but not too shabby for a little edublog. This site contains the drips and drabs of my career and thoughts about public education. Whether they have been worthy of so many posts is a decision for The Reader. A lot has changed for me over the almost six years I've had this space, but I will save that brand of nostalgia for another time. Instead, I find myself wondering about the changes to teaching over the past few decades.

    My mother is in the picture on the right. It was September 1969, just after she turned 23 and was beginning her second year of teaching. Me? I'm the barely visible bump underneath her dress. (Even as a fetus, I was in a classroom...not that I recall that particular experience.) I'm kind of a problem (yes, already). Being unwed and pregnant as a public school teacher in 1969 was "not simple," as my mother once said. She taught until Remembrance Day, then quit and stayed hidden in a local hotel until I made my appearance a couple of months later. After handing me over to the government to find a new home, she moved on with her life and career.

    When I finally did meet her, she was still teaching and working part-time in her school as an administrator. I never got to see her teach (she usually had a Grade 1 classroom), but stories from former colleagues and students suggest that she was excellent.

    On the left, we have my father. This picture was taken on the same outing as the one of my mother. He, too, was a teacher---elementary music. He is 30 in this photo, but also a second-year teacher. He had worked for the CBC and lived in his parents' basement for most of his 20's before escaping into a different life and career...one where he sowed lots of wild oats (although we think I am the only one that sprouted) and started a decades-long affair with alcohol. I don't know much about his skills as a teacher. I never had very many conversations with him, and his advanced Parkinson's symptoms made things even more difficult. His girlfriend at the time---who was still teaching---seemed to think a lot of his abilities. I hope that he inspired a lot of children to love music.

    I have been thinking about these stories, along with those of every other former teacher I have known, as the 2010 pot swirls about educational matters. Has teacher quality changed in the past few decades---are the characteristics which now define a "good" teacher different from the 1970s...the 1950's...or the 1850's? Have teachers always suffered from the madonna-whore syndrome: at once expected by society to have no besmirches upon their personal escutcheons while carrying out the heavy demands placed upon schools? Have teachers and schools been continually vilified and perceived as not doing their jobs well? Did my mother and father feel as overworked and underappreciated in 1970 as my friends who teach today? In other words, has the world changed while teachers have remained the same?

    It's not that I think there will be a resolution to the push and pull between what society thinks it wants its teachers to do and what actually happens. Rather, I would like us to realize that while the world we live in may change, people do not. A six-year old is a six-year old. Perhaps she is dressed differently from year to year...perhaps he has access to different information. But the human needs and growth remain the same. Relationships are built in the same ways. Teachers who see a new batch of 6-year olds every year may remember these things, but a society which has long forgotten what it is like to be six does not.

    Somewhere behind those pictures...behind this blog...behind the at-large rhetoric about education are real people. Remembering that means that then and now aren't so different. It just means that we have to keep that important piece in our sights.

    Epilogue: After my mother died last year, we found this children's book. It had originally been given to my aunt, who was all of 5-years old when I was born; however, at some point, it had returned to my mother for use in her classroom. We returned the book to my aunt, but not before I snapped a picture of the note on the title page. I think it is the only "public" piece I've ever seen where my mother acknowledged my father. I also thought the story choice was a bit...interesting. Who else but a secretly pregnant woman who can't see her family for Christmas would send a story about a woman who was in danger of losing her firstborn child? Here's hoping that pregnant and unmarried female educators have a simpler time of things now.

    23 October 2010

    Memory Lane

    This is my new BFF. It is a Canon Pixma MX340...a replacement for my 5 year old HP all-in-one that gave up the ghost months ago.

    It has been my quest the past few months to methodically go through my house and pare down my "stuff." I do this every 2 - 3 years and am always surprised at what I find. This round, I have tried to be especially thorough. There is not a single drawer, cabinet, or box anywhere in the house that I haven't completely sorted through (except for the Christmas stuff...but it's time is coming). I have looked at every book, every keepsake, every piece of clothing, dish, linen, and tool. There have been trips to the dump, to Goodwill, and items moved out via Craigslist. Yesterday, I bundled up all of my old electronics: an ancient (i.e. 7-year old) laptop, the HP all-in-one, 5 cell phones, 2 zip drives, 2 cameras, a Palm Lifedrive, and countless chargers and cables. For $10, Office Depot graciously accepted them all and boxed them up for e-cycling. And I came home with my new friend.

    I need this friend. You see, it has an automatic document feeder on the top and wireless capabilities. And here at home, I have a few boxes of files that I want to digitize. Lots of paper from my career never had an electronic form. They were copies handed to me at conferences, dittos from early in my career, articles from my own schooling, and so forth. As I've been sorting this summer, I've realized that I'm not ready to put my teaching career in the recycling bin---but it is not so great that all these little treasures are starting to smell like basement. This is where my BFF comes in. Now, I can easily scan anything I want to hold onto---and across the room, no less---and it will magically appear on my computer desktop, ready to keep and share with others. I'll archive, make a backup copy, and then I can recycle the hard copies from my career.

    I started with a milk crate of files this morning. I'm about halfway through, although I've already sorted what I want to scan and what I don't need to keep. It's been a fabulous little journey down memory lane: creativity tests for gifted kids...intriguing labs...interviews students did with polio survivors...projects...and so forth. Since I didn't get the fancy-dancy version of the all-in-one, I can't do 2-sided scanning. But, I can merge things with Acrobat Writer and all will be well.

    I plan to upload and share some things here. Perhaps some of my old favourites might find new life in your classrooms. Maybe that little Canon can be your BFF, too.

    16 October 2010

    Here's Johnny!

    I'm bushed. Three conferences in a week is a lot...especially after the previous week contained three separate (but informal) presentations on the new assessments, too. I am the freakin' Johnny Appleseed of EdTech Assessmentland: planting little seeds of ideas that I hope will bloom all over the state.

    Things I've learned during conference season:
    • I don't care what content area it is, the teacher archetypes appear in all of them. You know what I'm talking about. Whether it's the jaded veteran or the person who has to bring up the same point over and over again, everyone has their role in the discussion. I know I shouldn't be surprised by this, but it amuses me to see it in such a wide variety of settings.
    • I will not claim that our tools are going to lead to widespread change. What I do find interesting, however, is that someone in each group I've worked with has commented that they feel like the finally have something that will lead to conversation and collaboration with another group. IT staff thought they had the basis for a discussion with curriculum...librarians have a link to CTE...and so on. The fact is, they don't need us for any of that. Catalyzing those connections is an unintentional, but fortuitous, consequence.
    • We're on the right track with these assessments. Sure, not everyone is going to love them and use them. And people in the room who thought our work sucked probably kept quiet and will use the anonymous survey instead. All comments---even the ugly ones---can be used for learning and improving what we have. For example, someone didn't like the arts/edtech assessment we developed because a teacher might have to teach something new---why not just have kids research a piece of tech and do a powerpoint instead? And while we won't go that direction with our work, what those sorts of comments tell me is that we have to do a better job communicating with the field about what's in our standards and why we've made the choices that we have. There needs to be more foundation built.
    • Because of the enthusiastic reception (so far), I am a little freaked out about our writing sessions this fall. We're going to fly without a net. Instead of building onto existing assessments for social studies and arts, we're going to create brand new pieces that integrate a variety of content. Social science and math? Math and engineering? Epidemiology? Criminalistics? The curriculum world is our veritable oyster. This is a wonderful thing...but also makes for a very big world. We can't write about everything. We need to carefully select 6 or 7 topics. How to choose these? Can we write them in a week...which is all the time we have? I'm gettin' the sweats just thinking about it. These things have to kick ass and chew bubblegum. (Kind of like this, but without bullets.) I believe in my assessment group...just gotta believe a little in myself, too.
    I have the upcoming week to catch my breath from conference season. The next one will be in March (3 conferences in three states that month) and I will have a whole new set of information to share by then. This is a process which has many miles to go before I can sleep. But next year, I hope to watch the seeds I've planted grow and bloom.

    12 October 2010

    STEM Dissection

    As I mentioned in yesterday's post, my assessment group will be focusing on constructing some classroom tools which integrate and measure STEM and Educational Technology. In preparation, I have been asking for ideas from a variety of people and looking at countless online resources. After all of this, and in spite of being a science teacher for 17 years, I have decided that I really don't know what the hell STEM is.

    At the surface level, the acronym represents science, technology (but not educational technology), engineering, and math. What I can't tell is whether this is supposed to just be a broad category of subjects...or something special that integrated two or more pieces.

    Most of the STEM-touting Web sites I've seen for educators are very silo-like. Science lessons here...math lessons there. You might find a resource that addresses both science and math concepts or science and engineering---but the connections are forced...the alignment artificial. (And you know how much I hate that.) And don't get me started on the technology stuff. It's all hardware.

    Maybe this is okay. Maybe it's really meant to be S-T-E-M, without any fusing between the areas. Somehow, I thought the integration and connection between content pieces should be the focus. Or maybe it's all of the above: Wild STEM, refusing to be tamed.

    I just find it interesting that with all the talk and money being thrown at STEM these days, there is no standard for what it is. My hunch is that a lot of groups will say that they're all STEM, all the time in order to get some funding...but they have no more clue what they're doing than any other group. Is that really what we want?

    While none of this will be sorted out before my group needs to write, I am fairly certain that we're going to go with an integrated model---not simply science + edtech or math + edtech. And maybe, just maybe, we'll prove that educational technology is "T" enough for STEM.

    11 October 2010

    Terms of Engagement

    Later this month, my assessment group will be reconvening to do some more writing. I haven't seen them since June and really have missed them. They spend time with other teachers every day. I rarely do---and their energy is restorative to me. In exchange, I try to give them rich professional learning experiences.

    One of the things that I have been wrestling with---and will ask them to wade through---is some definition around two adjectives: relevant and authentic.

    Education is replete with calls for learning opportunities which are "relevant" to the student. Until recently, I hadn't thought about this term much. I was part of a discussion recently where someone pointed out that adults have to deal with problems all the time which aren't relevant to them. Ever had a co-worker/spouse/child drop an issue in your lap? Suddenly, someone else's problem becomes yours. "Authentic" has its own issues. I have always assumed that authentic was interchangeable with "real world." Maybe it still is.

    Both of these terms require some sort of context---relevant for whom? authentic as compared to ? Dan Meyer has been exploring pseudocontext over on his blog: "authentic" examples of math that are bastardized to create a problem for students to solve.

    As much as I want to avoid this as we move forward with the EdTech Assessments, I have also been struggling to find examples of STEM concepts that aren't chock full of pseudocontext. I am beginning to wonder if this is a de facto piece, especially for younger students.

    For example, are there authentic and relevant problems for first graders to solve that involve knowledge and skills from science, math, and technology? I can think of topics that integrate these. I can easily picture providing students with some materials science experience and then having them design a new home for the Three Little Pigs. I can make connections with science and math concepts (properties of materials, measurement, etc.). Knowledge of the attributes of different materials can be very useful. But I have to admit that a first grader is not going to be out building houses anytime soon. Does this make the experience irrelevant---just because it is not as applicable when 7 years old? Have we created something that isn't authentic because primary students aren't responsible for real world engineering/architecture---or is it because we might try to tie this to a literary piece that they understand? Or, is it okay to build background knowledge of materials and design in age-appropriate ways that can become relevant and authentic later in life?

    Even with older students who have some additional life experience in them, I'm not sure that we ever get to "relevant." I think it's easier for them to make the bridge to "authentic," but it's still somewhat artificial. I'm not sure what that will mean as my assessment continues to build tools for the classroom. I'm hoping that we can find some peace with these terms of student engagement.

    10 October 2010

    Breakin' the Law

    Every once in awhile, I see a piece about dumb laws (now there's even a Web site devoted to them). These are laws which were enacted at some point in the past, and as society and technology moved forward, the law was forgotten...but still left on the books. For example, in Washington state
    • All motor vehicles must be preceded by a man carrying a red flag (daytime) or a red lantern (nighttime) fifty feet in front of said vehicle.
    • It is mandatory for a motorist with criminal intentions to stop at the city limits and telephone the chief of police as he is entering the town.
    • All lollipops are banned.
    Furthermore, in Seattle it is still illegal for anyone to carry a concealed weapon that is more than six feet in length. Let that be a lesson to you, fair citizens and visitors to our state.

    These are, technically, enforceable. It takes a lot of time and effort to repeal laws, and so they stay in the code and we just pretend they aren't there. Other laws may be broken on purpose in the name of a civil disobedience cause---and society condones that sort of activity, too.

    How do we know when it is okay to break the rules?

    I was thinking about this after yesterday's presentation on cell phones. What I hear from teachers who are not opposed to using cell phones as instructional tools almost always goes along with this: cell phone use by students during the school day is expressly forbidden (or has many restrictions for place/time) by district or school policy. These same teachers know that when they do allow students to use the phones for instructional purposes that they and the students are not in compliance. While in my professional capacity I might not be able to condone that, I also don't discourage it.

    Board policy can suffer in similar ways to "dumb laws." I've seen Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) for districts that are seven years old (and older). Think of all the ways technology and access have changed in the past seven years: increase in mobile devices (cell phones, iPads, netbooks...), wireless capabilities, bandwidth/broadband to more areas, more online tools (blogs, wikis, YouTube, Facebook). An AUP can get antiquated in a hurry. Meanwhile, at the school level, you have more flexibility---but can have the fight between personal opinions. For cell phones, this often takes the form of extremes. And really, do you want to spend your "bored meeting" time listening to the "no way no how" types vs. "teach responsible use" camps?

    Instead, the path of least resistance is just to use your professional judgment and hope your administrator isn't one to be hellbent on enforcing the cell phone ban. Personally, I think a good compromise would be to include something like the one below (from the Uni High Student Handbook):
    Students may have silenced mobile devices on their person. The use of Communication features on cellular devices during instructional time, or in a disruptive manner in the school atmosphere, is prohibited.

    Note: Each teacher has the right to allow the use of mobile devices (e.g. cell phones, laptops, iPods, personal data assistants) during Instructional time.

    The school has separate expectations for phones during regular school hours and during extracurricular activities. What I like about this policy is that it leaves the decision up to the teacher. You can set your own expectations. You choose what makes sense.

    What a concept.

    There are times in both society and school where a common code makes sense. But there also comes a time when we need to look carefully at our values and check to ensure that match what we communicate to stakeholders. In the meantime, this one's for all the teachers out there who are putting themselves on the line in the name of using technology in the classroom:

    09 October 2010

    Cell Phones in the Classroom

    Today, I will be taking a new presentation out for a spin. Some teachers and I will kick the tires on it and see how it handles. I have this same presentation proposed for two conferences later this year which will give some other opportunities to do some fine tuning. If it's looking tight by then, I'll put in for some national conferences next year.

    This is a "wolf in sheep's clothing" presentation. Yes, we will talk about ways to use cell phones for research and data collection, but there are some other pieces I plan to sneak in. I also know some other things will bubble up---I expect people to have a lot of big buts. This is all good. My goal isn't to change minds. I would rather provoke some thinking and questioning, things that have been lacking in most approaches to dealing with mobile devices in the educational environment.

    I'm starting with some information from Pew.

    I will do some colour adjustments to the slide once it hits the LCD projector. Computer monitors are poor judges of what looks good large scale. Anyway, if you don't want to "click to embiggen" the above graphic, this is one of several pieces I've pulled for the audience to consider. In orange, we have the relationship between family income and the presence of a computer in the household. In purple, the presence of a cell phone. As you might expect, as income increases, so do the number of teens who have access to both pieces of technology. The surprise is in green. As income decreases, the use of a cell phone to go online increases. Not shown in this slide are trends involving minorities---non-whites are far more likely than whites to use cell phones for connecting online and taking advantage of a wide range of mobile features. When we ask students of poverty and students of colour to turn off their phones...when we refuse to offer mobile versions of educational websites or school surveys which can be completed via text messaging---are we increasing issues associated with the achievement gap?

    I want participants to play with text messaging (also known as Simple Messaging Service or SMS). Google SMS is one of the more robust options available, but I have spent time exploring others. What I've learned in the last few weeks is that SMS really blossomed as an option in 2005 - 2006...but I don't think the American public was quite ready for it. Not as many teens with phones then...not as many text messaging plans included with cell phone contracts. As a result many of the really cool SMS things I read about are no longer available. The most hilarious example of this was my test message to Yahoo! (92466---just spell "Yahoo" with the phone keypad). I sent a basic query "pizza 98504" on a Thursday morning. I did get an answer---but not until Sunday evening. So, apparently the SMS system still exists in some capacity for Yahoo!, but if you need a speedy answer, this is not the way to go. One other intriguing thing I've learned is that SMS is used extensively and in diverse ways in other countries (especially India). I suppose it could be argued that in many of those countries, people don't have computers---phones are the tools they do have and therefore SMS is more important. But I think that's all the more reason to have options here. I can pretty much count on every teacher and most teenage students to have a phone. I can't count on a 1:1 computer situation, bandwidth, open filters, or other conditions. We need to have more companies offer SMS options.

    I have ideas to share using SMS and data options for conducting surveys, classroom assessment, and capturing information about student performance. I'll also give a nod to App Inventor.

    At some point, however, we do need to talk about policy and implementation issues. I am not interested in promoting cell phones as a cure for what ails schools. I think that they can be a disruption in the classroom if their use isn't focused on learning. There are problems with the content of pictures and texts students store and send on their phones, including those which allow cheating on assignments and tests. But I think that we are going to have to find ways to (a) incorporate these tools---as appropriate---for lessons and (b) involve students and teachers in talking about responsible use as opposed to outright banning. I am wanting to gather ideas from educators at these presentations. What are the problems? What are the possible solutions?

    So, we'll see what happens today as I roll this out. I've never designed a slide show with so many "warm" colours. I'm not sure that this is such a great idea given that the topic may be controversial and this range tends to incite people...but we'll see if I get out of there without being pelted with rotten fruit.

    Do you have favourite tools for text messaging? What are you doing with your phone---other than calls, contacts, and calendaring?

    08 October 2010

    The Road Ahead

    I've neglected to mention some of conferences I'll be at this year for presentations. If you're around, please stop by and introduce yourself.
    • Friday, October 8: WA ArtsTime
    • Saturday, October 9: WA Council for Social Studies Cross Current
    • Friday, October 15: WA Library-Media Association
    • Thursday, December 9 - Friday, December 10: WA Educational Researchers Association
    • Wednesday, March 2 - Friday, March 4: Northwest Council for Computers in Education in Portland, OR
    • Saturday, March 19 - Sunday, March 20: WA Science Teachers Association (tentative)
    • Saturday, March 26 - Monday, March 28: ASCD Annual Conference in SF
    This is a rather diverse list. The first three represent new conferences for me, which I find very exciting. Now that I have a foot planted in educational technology, it means I have a foot planted in most content areas. Interestingly enough, I have no presentations on grading scheduled (yet). All but the ed research conference and ASCD will have me focusing on the new EdTech Assessments. However, I am rolling out a new presentation on "Cell Phones for Data Collection and Research" presentation this year. That proposal is out to three conferences and confirmed for one---and I will share more about that session tomorrow. The NW computer conference and ASCD will include my presentations on data visualization for the classroom---with the computer conference being a 3-hour hands-on workshop.

    I like being with educators, so these upcoming opportunities really are among the highlights of my year. I hope to see some of you at one or more of these events!

    07 October 2010

    Coming Attractions

    Just because I haven't been blogging doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about a lot of education-related...stuff. Here are a few topics I've been kicking around in my head. Perhaps you'd like to ponder and weigh in when the time and posts come:
    • Would the world be a different place if we focused on local problems first? Or would that only increase our capacity for prejudice? I am still struggling with the issue of "global competence." If the neighbouring district has a homeless student population of 25%, should I focus on helping make a difference on that issue...or should I give my money and support to relieve issues in Haiti or Pakistan? How we make choices---how do we help students prioritize---in a time when we know more about what's happening worldwide and have so many options available?
    • There is a lot of angry banter in the last month about public schooling in America. Maybe you watched Education Nation. Perhaps you've been reading shared ideas at the Huffington Post or other items in your RSS feed. I am not a fan of any of these, but I have been pausing to think about what is the work of a teacher? What should we expect teachers to do? Beyond that, what are the problems associated with education that we can solve? Given unions, local control, meddling by the feds, state laws, Billionaire Boys Clubs, and every other group with an interest in education---where is the common ground?
    • Beyond that, if we don't have the societal conditions in place to get to the kinds of conversations about instruction that we want to have, what should we do? Who is responsible? For example, if students don't have access to quality health care, nutrition, and safety at home---then learning is impeded. I don't want to make excuses here. Impoverished children can and do learn. I have yet to see a school that doesn't fight hard for its kids. I am just thinking about how we as a society need to enable change. 
    • Good teaching requires a Swiss Army knife of skills: classroom management, questioning strategies, interventions/reteaching, assessment, planning for instruction, etc. It's unreasonable to expect teachers to spring fully-formed from ed school experiences. However, which of these skills are absolute musts? What should happen to teachers who don't develop facility with all the tools?
    • Unpacking standards and deconstructing learning goals can lead to valuable reflection and conversation among teachers. However, it is unreasonable for a teacher to understand what interventions are appropriate for every student in every subject (especially at the elementary level).  What supporting materials should be provided---what should teachers be left to struggle with? Where is the balance in terms of teacher autonomy and support needed to ease the load?
    If anyone comes here looking for answers...you will be sorely disappointed. But one of the reasons I've stayed away from writing this past month while all hell seems to be breaking loose in the edusphere is that I'm tired of the rhetoric. At some point, it's time to "fish or get off the pot," so to speak. Enough whining from various parts of the education spectrum. If you don't like your administration, change schools, become part of a solution (or an administrator yourself), or work to get new administrators. Don't like who's making the laws? Get out to campaign and vote. You don't like the program the local school is implementing? Get your ass in the classroom to really learn about what is going on and volunteer in your schools. You don't want the new standards/assessments your state is building? Call your legislator. Respond to the postings for educators to participate in state level work. Make time to go to a conference or an appointment to talk with someone involved. In short, be responsible for your ideas. I am good about this in some ways---and not so good in others. But what I hope to get from this posts is some sort of guidance about a plan of action. Maybe you'll be kind enough to share yours.

    06 October 2010

    That's What She Said

    Dear Presenter from Today,

    Even though you stressed the important role of feedback in formative assessment during your presentation today, you neglected to ask for any. So, as a favour to you, I'm including some here.

    I agree that the Black Box article by Black and Wiliam is seminal and an important read for classroom educators. I also know that it is nearly 15 years old and much has been researched, analyzed, and written about providing student feedback and using formative assessment in the classroom. Perhaps this article is appropriate when working with teachers new to the ideas. In a room full of state leadership, this article is redundant. We have expertise. Use it.

    I really loved (not) how you modeled the complete opposite of everything you were talking about today. All the stress on adjusting instruction and meeting students where they are---all the emphasis on the responsibilities of the teacher. Such important concepts. And yet, we as learners were treated to one of the most extensive "sit and gets" I have been to in a very long time. We weren't to use our phones to connect and learn and look at links you provided because the phones distract you. You. We are learning. We are the clients. You are there for us. Don't treat us like we're just a meal ticket that should bow at your feet.

    You are right in that teachers need strong support. They also need real answers. When someone asks you for some concrete suggestions about closing the gap between student learning and the standard, don't give them a bunch of platitudes and then ask, did that answer your question? I nearly burst out laughing when the person quietly said "Thank you." because what was hidden in there was "No, but now I feel too stupid to ask again." And you just went right on with what you wanted to talk about instead of what they needed. You didn't have a clue what you'd just done. If you don't know an answer, at least be gracious enough to say you don't, offer to do some research, or ask the other participants for their suggestions. You've already said that you moved into administration from teaching because teaching was too hard. Now you're going to tell us what to tell teachers? How about you stick your advice in your ZPD and smoke it?

    The coup de grĂ¢ce was your observation about sending teachers to professional development. I have to agree with you that there is a lot of poor PD out there. You were generous enough to show us that first hand today. But I particularly loved your statement that when you were an administrator, that if teachers came back with a "neat idea," you never allowed them to go to a workshop again because getting neat ideas is a waste. Neat ideas don't help kids. (Is that why you provided none today?) 

    Let me tell you about "neat ideas." They might not help kids directly---but they inspire teachers. They make them want to try new things that can reach students for the first time. They can motivate teachers to think of new ways to present material or assess learning.  They make teaching exciting. I have to say that when I was a n00b teacher, "neat ideas" are what saved me and kept me in teaching. Now I am wondering how many careers you crushed when you told a spirited teacher "no more learning for you." 

    That was my biggest takeaway today: you don't know jack about learning (especially how adults learn). Don't learn using a computer or phone---only the sound of your voice or these relatively poor visuals that were included could possibly suffice. Don't learn from the person sitting next to me. Don't go some place where I might be exposed to (gasp!) a neat idea.  

    Lucky us. You're coming back two more times this year. Unfortunately, I won't make the last meeting as I am already scheduled to be looking at student work and having meaningful conversations about it. There are sure to be "neat ideas" there, so I'm sure you will be relieved to know that I'm not inviting you. But my phone and I will be ready to join you and learn in January. I hope you're ready.

    Sincerely yours,


    05 October 2010


    I'm not dead...just having a very difficult time at the moment. September was hard for personal reasons. October is not off to the best start for work reasons. So, I've been trying to take care of myself and am about ready to take on this space again.

    Some good news on the way, as I will also be doing some writing and posting for ASCD starting later this month. Should be just the kick in the pants I need.

    10 September 2010

    International Rockflipping Day 2010

    I'm a little late getting the message out, but Sunday, September 12, is the date set aside for this year's International Rockflipping Day.

    Visit Wanderin' Weeta to find out more details, but here is her summary:
    • On or about September 12th, find your rock and flip it over.
    • Record what you find. "Any and all forms of documentation are welcome: still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry."
    • Replace the rock as you found it; it's someone's home. (More on this, later.)
    • Post on your blog, or load your photos to the Flickr group.
    • Send me a link. My e-mail address is in my profile, or you can add a comment to any IRFD post.
    • I will collect the links, e-mail participants the list, and post it for any and all to copy to your own blogs. 
    • Tweet it, too. Use the hashtag #rockflip.)
    I participated last year and will see what I can find this coming Sunday. If you're a classroom teacher, considering heading out with students on Monday and adding your information.

    Taming the Monster

    When I started my teaching career, there was no email. The physical mailboxes in the main office were the main point of communication---paper notes exchanged to carry on the business of the school. After I moved to Washington (15 years ago...), email became part of my job function. This mode of information exchange has evolved a bit since then. In those early days, students often had their own email addresses---and there were no blocks in place to keep them from accessing it at school. Many teens in my classroom had pagers, but not cell phones. And certainly there was no texting. Email was the main point of contact for us outside of school hours. I sent study questions, provided tutoring, was the occasional agony aunt, and of course, stayed in touch with their parents.

    Over the years, student use of email has decreased significantly. Some teachers think it is because the Internet filters of most schools block access. Others think that students have just moved on to other tools (Facebook posts, text messages, etc.). I think it's some of both, but email itself is not going away. I am seeing a fair number of young adults (and, to be fair, recalcitrant old-timers) in the workforce who don't manage their email well. You can find any number of posts on the Internet about dealing with email, but I will distill some wisdom here, too.
    • Set aside some time at least once a day to manage your messages. Some people like alerts that tell them every time a message appears...others schedule a time at the beginning and the end of the day. I'm not going to advocate for any particular schedule, other than commit to dealing with email at one point during the day. 
    • Set up folders to store messages---do not let them sit in your inbox. Also, save any and all communications that are not just "FYI" items, including the messages you send. Not only will this help keep your inbox from overflowing, it will make it simpler to find the information you need later.
    • When you read an email, make an immediate decision about its purpose and what to do with it. Is it just a note from the office about the volleyball team leaving early? Perhaps the principal is giving a reminder that there's a change in the schedule? Read and delete anything that has immediate information. Read and move to a designated folder anything that has long term information (e.g. a new form from the district or things about the payroll system). Don't read and leave these in your inbox. If it is a message that requires a response from you, respond immediately if the answer can be provided in three sentences or less. Then, either delete the message or move it to a folder. Again, don't leave it in your inbox. If your response will require a significant response, email might not be the best mode. Tell the sender you'll give them a call or set aside time to compose a reply. You can achieve inbox zero every day.
    • If you have sensitive information or a difficult situation---don't use email. Email creates a record. Contents of a phone call or in person conversation do not. Choose wisely.
    • Finally, a word about difficult email. You're going to get these once in awhile. It might be a parent who is ripping you a new one. Maybe it's a message from the district office about cuts to your favourite program. Perhaps it's a colleague who is (in your opinion) acting like an ass. Whatever the case, there will be things that land in your inbox which send your blood pressure through the roof. Here is what I recommend. (1) Hit the "reply" button. (2) Immediately erase any information in the header---the email address in the "To" box, subject line, any CC/BCC addresses. Take away any possibility that this message can be sent. (3) Write the email you really want to send. No, really---do it. Use whatever language you want. Let it all hang out. (4) Read it a few times. Smile. Breathe. Do not show it to anyone, no matter how tempting. (5) Delete this response...then delete it from your deleted items folder. (6) Now, hit the "reply" button again. (7) Write the email that is okay to send. Since you've already allowed yourself an opportunity to tell them off, there is much less of a chance that you will either be outright ugly or passive aggressive in this message. (8) Save the draft and let it sit overnight. Read it again the next day after you've had more time to cool off and reflect on things. If you're still not sure, get the opinion of a colleague or admin. Then, send the message.
    You can have a healthy relationship with your inbox. Email does not have to eat up a lot of time and energy or rule your day. I expect that its use will continue to evolve as other forms of communication gain favour within the school walls. For now, just remember to let it know you're the boss.