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.