28 October 2011

Welcome, ASCD Ed Leadership Readers

If you're an ASCD member, you may have seen that this month's issue of Educational Leadership is devoted to grading practices. And Ye Olde Blog got itself a mention (as did my friend Kirk from Teach Science for All):

I have updated the grading wiki, in case you haven't visited in awhile. I loaded it up with more research, a section on policy, and a whole lot more. (And, thank you to the EL editor for giving me a "heads up" that company was coming so I could rebuild that site.)

If you're new to What It's Like on the Inside, thank you for joining me here. It's a space that I've used to chronicle my last seven years as an educator at the classroom, district, and state levels. Some of the content is science-related. Part of it is specific to teaching. There are rants and raves sprinkled about. I talk about being an EdTech skeptic while (currently) working in EdTech. And yes, there are a lot of posts on grading and assessment to explore. I also blog at Excel for Educators, which has a lot of nifty posts and tutorials on building and using gradebooks for standards-based grading. If you can't find something you like here, check out some of my suggestions on my blogroll.

You're most welcome to hang out and learn, reflect, and join the conversation. If you need a doggy bag, click the RSS button at the bottom of the sidebar and posts will be delivered to your virtual doorstep (I'm also on Twitter). Let me know if there's anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable. I'm happy you're here!

27 October 2011

Silicon Implants

I think a lot about the purpose of integrating digital tools and devices into the educational setting. I have been called "techie," but it is not an adjective I use to describe myself. It's not one I admire or have any desire to attain. I am not someone who claims that digital is always better or that just because kids were born into a world of computing that they should be surrounded by it 24/7.

In the circles I move in, I'm definitely the minority. I have to wonder how much this impacts things---both from my perspective and the other one. There have been times when I've been in a room of 12 people and been the only one without an iPhone. And if an iPhone is the norm for a group, I worry about how that might skew the decisions that get made. There becomes an assumption that everyone has access to an iPhone, which then drives the discussion about what to showcase or pursue. My concern is that this increases the digital divide. When what we offer is only about a single platform or expectations, the people or districts which can't afford the technology (or broadband plans) or who don't live in a particular service area will continue to be left out.

More and more, I hear about the promise that digital content and connections will have for rural schools. I agree with part of that---the increase in accessibility can be a good thing. But this promise is almost always coupled with the concept that connectivity will replace all professional development for teachers. While you might say that something is better than nothing, I don't know that creating a division where urban teachers get direct access to expertise and classroom coaching while rural teachers get ether represents a step up. How about asking rural educators what they want and how they want to learn?

And ditto for students of poverty. The constant push to infuse computers in the classroom so kids can have interventions really sets my teeth on edge. What will happen when the students with the greatest needs for relationships get 1:1 learning with a machine?

Finally, I'm not convinced that the goal of a digital learning environment has any real purpose. I see lots of pictures of kids in a cubicle-like learning space, each with their own computer doing their own thing. That there's some real disruptive innovation. The greater goal, in my mind, is to help each student learn how to learn. Some of them will want pencils and paper. Some of them will want tablet computers. "Paperless" should not be a goal any more than the endless parade of standardized tests.

Technology in the classroom isn't going to go away. It will increase, driven first by the rise of testing, and then secondly by instruction. It can help in some wonderful ways. But we need to quit looking at it as a panacea for whatever we think is wrong with today's classroom: the teacher, the distance, the student. And we need to quit admiring it for the logo it sports or the fact we can now toss our year-old model in the landfill. Tech has consequences, just like any other choice. It's time we started thinking responsibly about its use.

24 October 2011


When I was in the classroom, I used the oft-maligned "If...Then...Because" hypothesis format with students. My purpose was not to require this format. There are any number of ways to construct a hypothesis. But I had a lot of kids who had trouble communicating their thoughts about a prediction. You could talk to them and they could explain their thinking. But to write a hypothesis for a given question? They were like deer in the headlights. So, I helped them incorporate this scaffold...this tool in their belt...so if they got stuck, they had a way out. To me, this is one of the purposes of using an instructional scaffold. It's a support for the student until they can stand on their own with a skill.

At a recent conference, I was in a discussion about the research process, and many of us in the room remembered using note cards, at the behest of our teachers. Although the notecards were meant to be a scaffold---a way to help us develop the ability to "chunk" information and track sources---but many of us also remembered being either required to use the strategy and/or graded on whether we used it. In fact, I'd wager that most of us have worked with teachers who misuse scaffolds in this way: they take what should be a flexible skill (like notetaking) and ossify a scaffold around it (index cards only). Scaffoldificiation has now occurred.

This is not to take anything away from the notecard process. Index cards can be used in all kinds of awesome ways. Where I start to have a problem is when something like notecards is presented as THE way to do research or when any "musts" are attached. At that point, you are asking the student to conform to the tool instead of helping the student develop a skill. I totally get that as a teacher, you don't want 30 different styles to have to learn and provide feedback on. There has to be a balance between meeting student needs and not pulling out all of your hair. But can you introduce more than one way (even just two?) for kids so they can start to learn what works for them?

I think there are various things at work that lead to scaffoldication. Part of it may be the old chestnut of "We've always done it this way." This presumes that the best way was identified decades ago, prior to the invention of lots of other tools and methods. And, who knows? Perhaps the old way is still best. But there's no way to know unless others are given an opportunity. It may be that fear (or laziness) is another reason. We grow comfy in our ruts. Hey, it worked for some students...let's give it to all of them.

Do you need to have a conversation with a colleague about scaffoldification? Obviously, you can't start with "Scaffolds. Ur doin' it wrong." But can you help them identify what it is they really want students to take away from the process? Chances are, it's not really the "If...Then...Because," the physical cards, or that every essay must have five paragraphs. Beyond that, they should be able to see that these attributes don't belong as part of the scoring process or final grade. Help your colleagues remove their own crutches and scaffolds so they can focus on student ideas and learning.

22 October 2011

Tastes Like Chicken

Over the years, I've been involved with a lot of lenses focused on standards. I've used them in the classroom. I've helped write them. I've developed items and assessments for them at the classroom and state levels. I've presented on them. I've evaluated student performance and reported on them. If there's anything you can do with a standard, I've probably done it. I'm just that kinky.

But the more I work with these little beasts, the more I realize what complex little creatures they are. And the more I worry about the ones yet to come as CCSS becomes implemented and the Next Generation Science Standards emerge. (Aside: If you haven't been keeping up with Jack Hassard over on The Art of Teaching Science site, he's been killing it with great posts about the science standards process. Get on over there and read.)

I mentioned in a recent post about a conference session I did that was geared toward having a conversation about the shift from analog to digital in the research process and what that means for us and the students we work with. During that process, we took a peek at the EdTech standards and considered what was underneath. For example, a standard for grades 3 - 5 includes these expectations:
  • Gather information using selected digital resources.
  • Organize information using digital tools.
  • Record sources used in research.

Seems simple enough on the surface. But whether you're talking about how we guide students to take notes, paraphrase, use digital tools (e.g. outlines and mindmaps), read a digital text, or capture information about a source, there's a lot going on here. This is the mechanical engine that drives the standard. While you can make an easy link to the next grade band and how it will build on the strengths students develop at this point, that really doesn't get us toward a greater good. If there's an argument I hate more than "You need to learn this because next year's teacher will expect you to know it.", I'm hard-pressed to name it.

Although I'd never say it this way to students, the point of this standard is about getting your shit together. And that, my friends, is a lifelong skill that requires constant attention. What you learn, where it comes from, and how it fits with other pieces are things we all do throughout a lifetime (in both analog and digital ways). But we don't say this in the standard. Relevance gets lost as we condense and package the words. Meanwhile, all those bits and pieces mentioned above (such as, read a digital text) are also not mentioned. Standards seem to occupy some sort of middle ground between the grunt work that goes into mastering them and the higher purpose they can serve.

Teachers already know this. Most of the people involved in writing standards do not. I really worry about this---not just because it's ridiculous to leave teachers out of that process---but because it can take months or years for the statements representing the standards to be "unpacked" enough to know what's there. And here we are, simultaneously trying to develop assessments, when we don't even understand what's going to need to happen from an instructional standpoint.

Back when I was more naive (or more to the point: ignorant), about working in a true standards-based classroom, I thought things would be pretty simple. You read the standards...you get a picture in your head of what it looks like...and Poof!, kids learn them. The reality is different. I couldn't get to more than 6 standards in a semester with students, and even then, I felt that was pushing too hard. To build understanding for every student takes time---not just for them, but for the teacher. There needs to be multiple assessment opportunities. Instructional time devoted to teaching and reteaching. Standards shouldn't just be like chicken---something that can be incorporated or repurposed into a variety of recipes. They each need their own flavour for kids, with a palate that develops in complexity over a lifetime for them. I have major concerns about the rhetoric out there about the CCSS making kids "career and college ready." I'm sorry, but the words on those pages won't make that happen. It's all of the mechanical parts underneath---all of the unmentionables---that will guide that development. And teachers will be the most valuable part of that process.

I may well be overthinking things, but the more I have to wrangle the bon mots contained in standards, the more unsure I am that we as educators really know what we're signing up for. Hassard cautions, "Standards are opinions of a subset of professors, mostly from the academic disciplines, often appearing on boards and planning and writing teams for the first time. And in some cases participants of the teams ought to be replaced with fresh faces. Are there concepts in science, for example, that every human being must know? Probably. A set of standards for every student? We really do not have a way to determine what every student should know, and we have to wonder why we are so obsessed with this. Why, in a nation of 50 states, and 15,000 school districts, do we insist of a single set of standards, all of which are discipline based." I like the idea that every child has access to the same flexible "toolkit" when they leave the PK-12 system, but I have no confidence that we really know the meaning behind the words on those pages.

20 October 2011

Yes. Those Britches.

It's been a little busy around my place. Six events in four states in six weeks makes for one very tired Science Goddess. And tired leads to cranky. Cranky leads to putting on the ranty-pants.

Two of the meetings I've attended have been full of people who pride themselves on their educational leadership. And when it comes to discussions of online testing...or Common Core State Standards...the basic attitude is that "districts will figure it out." And I'm happy to give credit where it's due. Districts (read: Teachers) are competent professionals and do figure out how to manage what gets crapped on them. I also understand that when it comes to things like technology, it's unreasonable to expect that everyone will have the same hardware and bandwidth available at exactly the same moment in time. But telling districts to just "Git 'r Dun," as someone suggested at one meeting is not only crass, it's an abdication of your responsibility as a leader. You may not be able to solve every problem in every district, but you should at least provide some support and a road map. And, if you have no intention of doing so, please find another job and leave schools alone.

And speaking of technology-related things, such as online testing, it's time for tech-heads to quit whining about their outsider status in schools. As soon as you chose to separate educational technology as its own line item in budgets, you were no longer viewed as integral with curriculum and instruction. Claiming that you're futuristic in your thinking is ridiculous. Sure, you have a responsibility to look ahead and plan, but don't cry about how you're left out of current conversations. If you're not willing to help people move forward from where they are, then you don't get to complain about your exclusion from processes where that is happening. You didn't step up to help because you thought it was beneath you...that you were better off preparing for the world in a few years. Guess what? Others are now determining the path. Get over yourselves and ask where you can support the work others are doing. Don't expect them to come to you...and don't expect them to adopt your plans.

And, finally, I sat in on a presentation recently where a high-school teacher was talking about what she saw as a lack of skill development in students and told the elementary teachers in the room that they were going to have to do something about that. She justified this by saying that she used to work in an elementary school, then proceeded to detail her résumé---as if she'd "graduated" from low level work and could be the big booming voice of doom. Guess what, honey? I don't care if you worked with elementary students decades ago. No one cares that you think you're queen because you happen to have a high school job. You don't get to tell elementary teachers what to do. If you see a problem with student learning, get off your supposed laurels and fix it.

I feel better. Got a rant of your own? Borrow my ranty-pants (One size fits all!) and let off some steam in the comments.

18 October 2011

The Next Wave

This most recent set of conferences I've been attending is about the last for 2011. At this point in the year, I start to think about retiring my current slide decks and building new ones to extend the conversation from the current year.


With conference attendance diminishing with budgets and people attending as schedules and interests allow, it strikes me that there will always be a need for a "Start Here" sort of session when it comes to the work I do. If you're new to your job, just moved to the state, are a beginning teacher, or just haven't gotten to go to anything for awhile, you've missed the opportunities to learn the basics.

I do have a place online to put the old stuff. There are narrated tutorials anyone with an Internet connection can watch at any time. Noobs can engage with the content at their leisure (and others can review), but I also want to acknowledge that learning something online (especially in an asynchrous environment) is not the same as physically being with others who are. I don't want to claim that one is better or worse than the other. I think that depends on the skill of the presenter and the individual needs of the participant. What I do wonder is that by retiring a conference session after a year that we're eliminating a very important pathway for people to engage with the content.

As much as we discuss the concept of readiness for students, I really think there's something to that for adults, too. I've had any number of experiences working with adult learners when the proverbial light bulb goes off over their heads. Readiness emerges in waves every year. And I don't know how to account for that in an ever-changing educational landscape.

I'm going to have to ponder this some more as I start to prepare proposals for next year's conferences. How do we bring people up to speed while we're forging ahead? Have you seen something that works?

16 October 2011

Conversation Starters

The fall conference season is in full swing here. I've been busy the last two weekends with travel and presentations. A few were sessions recycled from previous conferences, but for new audiences. Science teachers want a different bent than librarians, even if the essence of each set of materials is identical.

But I also wanted to do something different with a conference session...something more personal for participants...something to engender the kind of conversation that isn't easy to have with a group of strangers in a one-hour block of time. As much as I hear people rail about how their PD isn't "engaging," I have to tell you that I've been in any number of sessions over the years where people wanted sit-and-get, and left when I provided more "constructive" sessions. Go figure. Anyway, I built an odd duck sort of session this time, never sure if it would sink or swim, and took it out for an inaugural run. I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

We started here:

I'm sure responses would vary with the median age in the room, but let's just say I had the card catalog, Reader's Guide, notecards, and ink pen age group. And this is okay---because as clearly as they could remember all of these things, it was the process that stuck. The most common response was "outlines" as an organizational device for thinking. As much as I remind people that technology is not (just) about the stuff, setting this personal context to drive the rest of the conversation was powerful in its own way.

I used four video clips from Desk Set to prompt the rest of the discussion. I chose the story arc about putting a computer (a 1957 version that nearly takes up the whole room) in the library and its impact on the people working there. These clips were meant to explore the research process further and have participants think about where they started and how they use both analog and digital tools today.

The first clip introduces Spencer Tracy's character, Richard Sumner, as he arrives to measure the library. But the librarians haven't been told why he's there (and he doesn't tell them).
So, the inquiry process starts with developing questions and determining a plan of action. This was tied to standards for students as their starting place. It was also connected to the lifelong takeaway (the "Essential Understanding," if you're a UbD fan) is that asking the right question matters, because that drives everything that comes next in the process.

We then moved on to a clip where the computer has been installed and the librarians have to face off with it. A question that took them three weeks to answer takes the computer mere seconds.
We then dug into the need to search, catalog, and organize. It's the next information literacy standard for students...and the next part of the process. And the computer (EMARAC) does a tidy job of that.

Believe it or not, this section of the presentation engendered the most lengthy discussion. We could have spent the full hour on this idea. Why? Because how you search, catalog, and organize is very personal. Some like post-it notes and mindmaps. Others like Evernote and Delicious. What tools you choose and how you put information together that makes sense for you is very individual---and yet, how many of us have been forced into the "Thou Shalt Have 10 Notecards" box? Also, as we make a shift from the analog to digital age, how do we accommodate students (and teachers) all over the spectrum? I'll talk about this more in upcoming posts.

Which brought us to this question for discussion:
Uh-oh. Our librarians have been pink-slipped. But the third clip shows that the need for the human element arrives in the form of evaluating information. EMARAC looks for information on the King of the Watusi's and finds a review of the movie King Solomon's Mines, as opposed to facts about the king himself. The computer operator types in "curfew" instead of "Corfu," resulting in even more hijinks. All while the librarians watch from the sidelines. We talked about the need for building a functional "baloney" detector within students. Fair Use is embedded with that, as well.

And finally, we discover the pink slips were a mistake. This solves one problem for our heroines, but they're still going to have to make peace with the elephant in the library. But they start to figure it out when there's a question for them about how much the Earth weighs. Hmmm...maybe EMARAC might be useful.
This question guided us to our final standard for students---one requiring them to share solutions and seek feedback. There's not an "either/or" option with technology anymore. But we do have to figure out where the pieces fit and how to use them wisely.

As you might imagine, an hour was a very tight timeline for things. It got rushed at the end. If I did this again, I would definitely look for a 90-minute time slot. I can even see this as being a 3-hour workshop, with plenty of time for table groups to not only explore the questions, but kick around some solutions for their own situations. What bubbled up a lot in the room was frustration with trying to go back and have these same conversations at school with people who aren't interested in thinking about technology, but who are teaching the research process to students. Those are important things to talk about, but we just didn't have the time or capacity.

I would really like to do more of this type of session. It's sort of a middle ground between a regular conference session and the unconference style. It is a structured discussion about some deeper ideas and personal connections, only the participants don't know that's what they're getting. When program descriptions limit you to no more than 25 words, it's difficult to cue both content and format.

I am always a big fan of conferences. Yes, some presentations are awful. (I attended one eye bleach-necessitating one this month. It was so bad, even the presenter's computer fried itself halfway through the session and refused to cooperate any further). Yes, the formats can be a bit stodgy. But I like that people are coming together to learn. In a time of shrinking budgets, fewer attendees are seen at these events. I think this is all the more reason to make the time that we have in these sessions more meaningful in terms of how people can be conversation starters when they return to their schools.

09 October 2011

Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

Last week, I started using my first tablet device (computer?). It's for work, as with the infusion of these items into classrooms, it's difficult to provide any support or advice without knowing what they are able to do. I'm not an Apple fan. I don't have an iTunes account. I don't use their hardware. So, I'm sporting an Asus Transformer, which has a Droid (Google) OS.

I am looking to interact with this tablet from a couple of perspectives. One is simply from an educator level. If I were a teacher, for example, how might I use this for my own productivity? So, I'm hunting for apps for managing lessons and projects, record-keeping, content, and interactivity with other people and devices. But along the way, I have to learn how to personally deal with this...thing. Do I like to try and touchtype...or is the "hunt and peck" method better? I do have access to an external keyboard/docking station, and a stylus. When are these the best options for input or use? And then there is app management---what items to place where, as well as basic set up. How do I decide if an app is "good"? What role might these play in my work with students?

The other viewpoint I'm trying to take is at a student level. Sure, there's an advantage of having a tablet deliver classroom content over a backpack full of books, but that's only a small part of learning. You also need to able to manipulate information (e.g. take notes on what you read, organize information for papers/presentations) and share it (e.g. upload to wikis or other learning spaces). At this point, I don't really care about the content-related apps. I know they're there, but right now, I want to focus on the output. Can I edit a wiki and add hyperlinks? Can I edit a video clip or create a music track? Draw something and then share it on Flickr or Tumblr or Moodle?

The answer to all of these so far is "Sorta." This echoes what I've seen and heard from people with iPads. The Apple market is much farther along in terms of app development, but considering the Droid platform far outstrips iOS in the phone market, it won't be long until open source apps catch up (and go further). There are beautiful apps for getting information into your head...but the ones for harnessing the real power of the web just aren't quite there yet. At this point, I really hope that schools are proceeding with caution about getting tablets into the hands of students. If your primary reason is to provide access to digital content, you have spent a ton of money on nothing that will actually change instruction. Is that really what the goal should be?

I have a netbook. The battery life has never been great...and the processor struggles with large files. It runs on Windows XP, a soon-to-be no longer supported system. However, it is smaller and lighter than a tablet...runs regular software (not apps)...and has a small, but very functional, keyboard and touchpad. I have loved this little machine a lot. But, it's 2.5 years old and is starting to show its age. I'm going to have to replace it at some point and it will be interesting to see if I make the choice to go tablet. I like the idea of a handheld...but I don't like the idea of not being able to easily access, edit, and use the files that I need most. I understand that different tools can have different purposes, but how many things am I supposed to carry---a phone...a tablet...and a netbook/laptop? I will be watching the tablet evolution very closely. I am hoping that the devices become lighter and the apps more powerful.

Are you using a tablet, either for personal or professional reasons? What's been your experience? What would you recommend?