Friday, January 30, 2009


I'm not as big of a Wordle enthusiast as some educators, but there are two main features that grab your attention:

1. It's quick
2. It's easy

Even if you haven't heard of wordle, you probably know what it is. It is a free online tool that generates "word clouds" from passages. You can give it a website, a blog, a set of tags from delicious, or even cut and paste your own passage in.

The site scans the text and visually represents the frequency of the words, the more often used, the bigger relative size of the word. The one above is of the Newell-Fonda post from Tuesday.

As a visual learner, I can tell you this type of representation resonates for me, getting to the heart of the importance of meaning. It certainly can be used as a discussion starter (as this inauguration address comparison between Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and Lincoln shows).

There are two caveats I would say to using this in education. One, the site's creator Jonathan Feinberg mentions several times that this site cannot edit for obscenities... what goes in, comes out. This shouldn't be too much of a problem if teachers are proofing sources before the activity.

Two, as with all quality instruction, this is just a tool, a means to an end, not the end itself. When asked what she was doing in her next unit, one excited teacher mentioned the kids were making a wordle, as though it were an iMovie or website. Which of course is not appropriate integration. Wordle is a quick tool to be "worked on" by student for 5 minutes at the most. As I said before, its power is a quick visualization and the discussion and analysis that follows.

That said, this is how I have seen it used effectively in classrooms:
  • Students analyzing word usage in their own essays or speeches
  • Students using the wordle to predict the theme of an upcoming short story or main idea of an upcoming article
  • Students checking their understanding of main idea after reading the story/article
  • The teacher summarizing an online chat or forum discussion that the class used
  • Teachers using summaries of news sites for an access point to a current events discussion
  • Students finding words posted in the school to identify what are the school's core values

Anything that allows students to use frequency of terminology as a point for analysis can benefit from the tool, though. Fellow edublogger Rodd Lucier has a creative list of ideas as well.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Program Evaluation, part 2

I walk a fine line when talking about program evaluation, for while I am not a proponent of using traditional standardized tests (ITBS) for seeing if your program works, I am equally adverse to those who say "Heck with data altogether". Data are crucial.

David Warlick, who I have a lot of respect for, showed his apprehension for data when he touched upon this topic in his recent blog post:
Now I get data. I understand its value under some circumstances. Yet when I hear people exulting data collection as a principle way of educating children, I feel that we are being drawn away from the things that I truly value in teaching — in being a teacher. It’s because I am, admittedly, a romantic when it comes to education. It’s about relationships, environment, and activity. I know that disaggregated data can help, but there’s something about the scale that bothers me.

What draws me to his thoughts is that, in many ways, I am the same. As a teacher, I was romantic when it came to instructional time. I knew when we just had a great learning moment, or when students suddenly saw the bigger picture. And as a principal, I knew that no matter what we did in professional development, certain teachers were going to be masterful in the classroom while others would not. There is an art to teaching that, unfortunately, I don't think you can learn. Some people just are great teachers.

But as I have learned, there is a science to teaching as well, parts that can be analyzed and systematically improved. If someone were to ask me when I was a teaching, "How do you know this constructivist-style classroom is working?" I would have said "You have to see what I have seen", the romantic that I am.

That answer is not acceptable. The answer has to be "I did it this way, and these were the results. Then I did it this way, and these were the results. And, being the second was better, I continued that practice." And, data are needed.

As a teacher, this was tough for me to swallow. Like most teachers, I took a prideful ownership of what I taught. To say it could be improved is almost a personal attack. This is the hurdle that has to be overcome.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Program Evaluation of 1:1 Environments

More food for thought from the day at Newell-Fonda...

At a couple different times during the day, one member asked a good question: what is the impact of the 1:1 on student achievement. The Newell-Fonda district, of course can't answer that quantitatively, being that they just started implementation at the beginning of the year. And while teachers indicated they saw improvement in student's performance in their own courses, critics could counter by arguing that's subjective data from a partial source.

Leaving Newell, I had a conversation with Steve Linduska, a colleague of mine at Heartland. One of the things we discussed is the interesting dynamic of a 1:1. You have an empassioned district (and in this case, partnering with an empassioned vendor, Apple). And at this district, the superintendent is also the high school principal, and probably has half a dozen other hats, like curriculum, public relations, school finance, and running the scoreboard at athletic events. Simply put, you don't have someone who can take an objective look at whether it is working, because they are too involved.

But as Steve pointed out, that's just half the dynamic. The other half is how this would be measured, which in Iowa, has been resoundedly via ITEDs. But, the benefits of a 1:1 do not appear solely (or I'd suggest even primarily) in ITEDs. What about visual literacy? Creativity? Synthesization? Presentational skills? Adaptability and problem solving? Not bubble friendly.

Mark Pullen put this well:

I think one of the biggest unspoken messages that No Child Left Behind has sent to teachers and students across the country is this: If something can’t be easily benchmarked, it isn’t worth teaching or learning.

The trouble is that most of the things that really matter in education (and life) aren’t benchmarkable.

Jeff Dicks, the Newell Superintendent, hit on that as well, as he replied that a junior in his school had suddenly taken a career interest in information technology, which doesn't appear in a bubble sheet.

Yet, it is essential that we do evaluate our programs to know if they are working, and do so objectively, authentically. I'd edit Pullen's last statement to say "The trouble is most of the things that really matter in education aren't easily benchmarkable". They still must be measured. What are assessments we can create that measure this reliably? This is more than just Newell-Fonda's task, it is Iowa's (and the nation's).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Newell-Fonda - 1:1

Today, I had the chance to visit Newell-Fonda High School in Newell, Iowa. Superintendent Jeff Dicks and Technology Director Tim Limbert were very generous in showing a group of educators their 1:1 initiative in action.

Newell-Fonda is a small, class-A school with a graduating class of 34 this year. The building itself is typical of what you would see in small rural districts, an older construction with many asymmetrical expansions.

But, their classroom instruction is anything but typical. With each high school student possessing a Macbook, they have several features of a digital curriculum taking place.

The interesting part of the story is the speed of adoption. Dicks mentioned it started with a call from Apple last January, and within 3 months, the superintendent, the tech team, the teachers, and the school board all got on board. In addition to adding Limbert's position, they agreed to a $64,000/year lease, which is quite a considerable investment for a small district.

Yet, you cannot deny it has transformed the school. There wasn't a student I visited with who didn't think that the program a) made them like school more, and b) had a positive impact on their learning. Classes were using a variety of instructional strategies, be it digital storytelling with the iLife suite, Geogebra and spreadsheets in math, Sketchup for computer-aided design, or an eBoard for posting assignments.

Several points made by Dicks and Limbert during the presentation jumped out at me:

• They held deployment (=handing the computers to the students) a week before school started to familiarize students with them. One parent had to attend the deployment.

• In many households, this was the family computer.

• On several occasions, they mentioned that students played games, and that was okay. As advice, Dicks said a district would have to reconcile themselves with that fact before they should go ahead with a 1:1.

• The key, they mentioned, was four days of Apple training that the staff had. Of course, Alan Hansen from Apple countered by saying that the key was the strong leadership the school had.

• They worked with a local insurance agency to develop a plan where families would pay $35 voluntarily and then have a $100 deductible on any damage (which was important because they had some broken screens the first week).

• Discipline referrals had been cut almost in half from the previous year.

• Students were not only allowed, but encouraged to use iTunes. When students built their own music libraries on the computer, they built a sense of ownership of the machine, which mant they took better care of it.

• Limbert had organized a "student tech team" to help troubleshoot computer issues... a first-line of defense.

Now, they still have some room for improvement, but the amount/depth of integration I saw today was way ahead of where I'd expect teachers 5 months into the adoption to be. They, like Central City, have the advantage of being a small district, which makes deployment easier. And, they have a very supportive board who sees the changing needs the 21st century brings.

My favorite part of the day had more to do with the issue of technology leadership than it did with a 1:1. Limbert shared this story (twice) with the group. When he was hired, Dicks said to him that his top priority was not to make sure the computers were fixed or the network was working. It was instead to make sure the teachers weren't frustrated. Words every superintendent should share with their technology coordinators, and every technology coordinator should live by.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Going Paperless and Budget Reductions

It is the season for budget cutbacks in K-12 education, and one thing I have noticed is the obligatory "brainstorming" sessions on ways to cut expenses not involving staffing reductions. Which, might be very effective at identifying wasteful areas, but probably won't do much to balance the budget shortfall. In K-12 institutions, generally around 85% of a budget is staffing.

And during these sessions, there are common suggestions. Turn off the lights. Use email to parents instead of spending on postage. And, try going paperless in the classroom.

There are two problems I see with this. First, the assumption is that there will be 100% implementation (everybody will turn out the lights precisely at 3:30, and voila! We'll save xx amount!). There won't be. You can't budget for energy savings just because a new policy has been instituted. Only after a year of looking at the effect of the policy on the operations of the school can you re-budget.

The second problem is this requires a pedagogical shift... which is a good thing. But, that assumes teachers are shifting their pedagogy. Which, again, takes time, not the least of which is to fully look at why this is good teaching. That pedagogy shift can not be predicated by a budget shortfall... it won't work.

My advice is to keep that in mind and inject a sense of realism in these sessions. Going paperless = good. But, you can't budget it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thoughts on Twitter, Twenty Days in

I am now 20 days in Twittering, which, in this day of overnight revolution, is an eternity. Here are my thoughts:

• The tool is versatile... it's obviously evolved from what its creators intended. But this Frankenstein's monster is by no means threatening. What originally was used to post what you were currently doing has now become a sharing-place for websites, a forum for conversations, places for polls, ways to ask for help, and much more.

• That said, I'm not that good at Twittering yet. Probably the 140 character max is stretching me to be concise, but I'm also finding that I'm leeching more than I'm contributing (it's hard for me to justify "retweeting" when my handful of followers are already following my sources).

That said, I'm finding much more through Twitter than I found from my blog and delicious feeds. Following those like Angela Maiers, @prodev, @etalbert and others who contribute dozens of handpicked resources a week streamlines my search process.

• If you are wondering what is going on with things like "retweeting" and those @ signs, this is an excellent primer.

• There are a lot of educators twittering. For a starting list, check out Twitter4Teachers. But from there, check who they are following, and expand your collection.

• The networking speed and capabilities are amazing. I don't feel like I'm contributing that much, and yet there are people out of the blue who somehow find me and start following. Interesting to think your thoughts have applicability in areas other than education.

• One of which is Charles Grassley, who is putting our other federal-level legislators to shame with his progressive use of Twitter. Kudos to him (and other senators) for using the medium.

• Want an example of a revolutionary tool? Just a few years back, people were marvelling at the speed the blogosphere revealed the Rathergate episode that would have taken the traditional media a long time to expose (if at all). Today... the blogosphere is slow compared to the twittersphere. Check out this summary of the breaking via Twitter of the downed Hudson River airplane.

• I'm thinking I was wrong. I originally thought of the tool as high potential for teachers via a Personal Learning Network, but not offering much for classrooms. Not true. And, not true. And again, not true:

Coupling this with mobile technology and a digital curriculum, and Twitter is a great tool for students and teachers alike. I'm moving it up in my "tools" discussions with educators.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New website

Definitely worth a look for your class, if for nothing other than a discussion of how things are changing in our society...

The White House website officially changed at noon today. You get the sense that the new website will be very representative of 21st century communication as it will feature a blog and youtube video clips. Included is a weekly video address to the nation (think FDR "Fireside Chats" in the 21st century).

What should be interesting is if the website truly is more of a forum for discussion (the Obama administration has promised it will be).

Cloud Computing and the G-Drive

If you are a district thinking about 1:1 computer usage and are considering netbooks, then you will quickly become familiar with the term cloud computing. In brief, it means having files and resources shared over the network, allowing more capabilities and requiring less of the user's workstation.

The way things are changing, hard drives in computers may become obsolete, if not severely less important. Fast internet connections make online storage retrieval as quick as hard drive storage retrieval. Web 2.0 technologies have made it possible for files to be saved on other servers already. Now, Google is planning on releasing a G-drive, which would be a large amount of online storage capable of holding more than your entire hard drive (think: huge media files such as movies and music). And in keeping with Google's past history of innovation, the G-drive might have new functions that greatly enhance your productivity, just as Google Reader, Google Docs, and GMail have done.

What is the impact? If districts take into consideration this when planning, they can take the money saved from purchasing netbooks over notebooks and invest that into a faster connection for more users. As technology advances, the district will have invested wisely, looking towards the future.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Diminishing Enrollment

In case you missed it (and could not predict it), Iowa's enrollment went down for the 11th straight year.

The news of course is not all bad, not when Microsoft is coming to West Des Moines, IBM to Dubuque, and Google to the Council Bluffs area. Those three will bring many high-tech positions to the state. But what do you do if you are Olin and you lost 14% of your students this past year? What do you do when your community is hemorrhaging citizens?

Our rural districts don't have to be destined for extinction. Communities can specialize in certain needs, such as TPI Composites windmill blades in Newton. What's more, with the portability of knowledge and the ability to work from distances, small communities do not need a corporate headquarters.

What they do need is collaboration with the K-12 district. If Newton High School, for example, provide courses that help prepare students for TPI, the corporation will have a higher trained work force in its own backyard and won't have the difficulty of recruiting. Which, they can repay by assisting the school with equipment for those courses. Pella has worked very closely with both Pella Windows and Vermeer Manufacturing, and both have helped Pella schools keep modernized.

We could say that schools should not be subject to the local community's industry, that they provide education for students encompassing the whole world's choices. But the reality is, if they don't partner with the local community, their best and brightest leave. Which, ends up driving down enrollment.

This is one respect where the Iowa Core lets us down. Despite its good qualities, the Core doesn't draw heavily upon the input of business leaders, and certainly not outside an Urban 8 setting. Fully implementing the Core will not bring students into your seats. And in this respect, it is forseeable to see rural districts paying more attention to its survival.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Popham's Formative Assessment

W. James Popham stopped Friday in Des Moines to visit with a crowd of DE, AEA, higher ed, and school officials. For years, Popham has extolled the virtue of formative assessment and his visit with educators coincides with the DE's focus on formative assessment as a pivotal part of the Iowa Core. Here are some of the highlights:

• He repeatedly mentioned it was a tougher challenge to bring formative assessment to Iowa. He (wrongly or rightly) assumed the state is driven by standardized testing as it is the home to Riverside Publishing, and was dismayed that ITBS was used for AYP. In addition, it has a "legacy of high-achieving schools" that makes change, in general, difficult.

• Referred to NCLB as "hijacking the label of formative assessment" for its own misappropriated purposes.

• Defined formative assessment as a "planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students' status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures or by students to adjust their current learning-tactics.

• Later added that it can be used in a school-wide reform effort, or for classroom wide change.

• It is not a test, an interim test (such as NWEA) or the "unplanned, serendipitous use of student cues to adjust teaching". The latter is what many teachers would mistakenly define it as.

The presentation seemed awkward at times; you could tell Popham wasn't sure what he thought of the Iowa Core, and seemed frustrated with questions from audience members.

Regardless, the Iowa Core leadership team has identified Popham's work as crucial to successful teaching in Iowa. While it remains to be seen what it will look like, training on formative assessment will be delivered in either module 5 or 6.

What is most apparent to me is that even more than training in formative assessment, teachers need training in assessment in general. An overwhelming amount of professional development in Iowa is spent on instructional strategies, and there are quite a few teachers without a pedagogical base of what makes sound assessment. Including a large portion of 7-12 grade teachers who think assessment is synonymous with grading. Of content, instruction and assessment, the latter is our weakest point.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What are the 21st Century Skills?

A good discussion is breaking out about the topic. Go take a look and contribute your thoughts.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

21st Century Skill: Engaging in Dialectic

You are probably seeing a trend here, between unlearning and embracing failure... that students shouldn't see knowledge and learning in black and white terms.

Let me nuance that with a 3rd skill we should emphasize in schools: how to engage in a dialectic. In other words, how does one have a conversation with another to reach a truth together?

Tapping into my former teacher mode, I will now use a bit of dramatic dialogue to emphasize my point.

Teacher: Suzie, what is the answer to number four?

Suzie: Two? (or Blue? or Yttrium? or Dwight Eisenhower?)

Teacher: Yes (you have met my pre-defined parameters for truth-i-ness on this particular question)
- or, No, can someone else help Suzie (find my pre-defined parameters)?

If you agree that students don't have this skill, you can see why. They are never given the opportunity to learn and practice it. Knowledge, be it in the form of classroom discussion or tests, is always in the form of right or wrong.

Now, what if students were taught how to answer questions with "Let me show you what I'm thinking", or "Consider this perspective"? Dialogue that prompted a discussion. And furthermore, what if students honestly believed that they could persuade teachers to think about the content in a different way? You suddenly are working with an autonomous learner who takes pride in their individual thought.

Let me put it this way, I knew this rather drab first-year teacher... (okay, it was me), who wasn't meeting his expectations with student engagement. Except when he threatened to change his policy around allowing mp3 players in study hall. And suddenly, there were many people highly engaged in the outcome of the mp3 debate. Their thoughts were suddenly sharp, their examples more vivid,.. and they had to be. Their mp3 players were at stake. And, because the teacher actually continued discussion and probed their thinking, the class became an enjoyable learning experience for all.

That brings up the flip side of this skill. A dialectic means you have to understand you might not be correct, either. Which, is why debating a teenager is very difficult (I'm tapping Dr. Phil now).

We don't do either of these well. We give the illusion that all learning is either right or wrong (and the teacher is always right), but then we also don't help students understand that they can't find the answer without being willing to change their understanding. In other words, we cut off learning before it has a chance to happen. And we have to stop kidding ourselves... this won't happen naturally. We have to teach students how to engage this way.

The end result to the mp3 discussion was a new, common understanding about the purpose of study hall. Both the teacher and the students came away on the same page, seeing the issue differently than before. We handled ourselves well, not arrogant, not a pushover, but as people seeking out what the right answer is. Socrates would be proud.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Voicethread is generating quite a bit of buzz amongst teachers.

This online collaborative tool gives teachers an alternative to power point presentations and Flickr-style commenting.

An individual creates a voicethread by uploading images, files, slides, and even videos. Then, the owner can comment on what they have uploaded in different ways: with an audio recording, a written text message, or a webcam recording. Most interesting is the program allows commenting from a cell phone, making it a tool that uses the technology students already own.

Once the owner finishes the uploading of files and the commenting, she shares the voicethread for others to comment. This creates a wide variety of opportunities. Students can create digital storytelling. Or, students can jointly build a book review. Or, students can write feedback of the impression the student's artwork or poetry left on them. Or...

While there is a limit of 25 MB, it does integrate with iMovie to make it even more functional for teachers who have previously used the Apple program. Take a look for yourself and see the ways that teachers are using it.

Professional Development Opportunity: Draw Your Network

Maybe, to help your school adjust to a shift from a top-down professional development structure to a personal learning network, it would be good to start with everyone drawing their own network.

Here's your plan:
1. Distribute drawing materials to faculty ahead of time
2. After an ice-breaker, pose the question "How do you learn?"
3. Have each teacher draw their own map of their learning network. You might want to model via a projector by drawing yourself and connecting to, say, other faculty.
4. Next, have them collaborate and discuss ideas.
5. While they are discussing, have them identify the items that a) have changed in the last month, and b) is someone who doesn't work in their building.
6. Facilitate a discussion about where we can grow as professionals, and how the items in step 5 don't always foster the best growth.
7. Show them some other sample maps. For example

Alec Couros, PhD Thesis illustration, the Networked Teacher -

Dave Warlick's Picture of his Personal Learning Network -

Stephen Downes - PLE Diagram -

This and more are available at EdTechPost

Monday, January 12, 2009

21st Century Skills = fluff?

Interesting debate brewing in the blogosphere about whether "21st century skills" really amounts to anything, or if it is a overblown piece of jargon which has withered into a make-what-you-want-of-it term.

A corollary to that is the question of whether 21st century skills truly are separate from content, or if they are subject dependent. Another way to think of this last question is, are the "21st century learning skills" needed in math the same or different than the ones needed in language arts?

The discussion starts with Jay Matthews' piece in the Washington Post.

Will Richardson has a follow up.

Ken DeRosa chimes in and has an ongoing, circular (and directionless?) discussion with Stephen Downes.

And, Tom Hoffman offers his perspective, in the context of a discussion of national standards.

My take? People who have said "students have always needed 21st century skills, we shouldn't call them that" are simply wrong. Our educational system is well established to educate students in the industrial age, where the magical "21st century skills" aren't essential. The problem is... we aren't in the industrial age. If the problem is semantics, then so be it. It is the term, much like "podcasting", that our society has accepted.

For those who say the term is becoming meaningless, I agree whole-heartedly. This is much like "higher-order thinking skills" or "quality instruction" or insert-your-educational-buzzword here. That's what happens a bunch of beattitudes are identified without any identification of what they are not (Blessed are the analyzers, the creative, the collaborators...)

But, for those who would say "forget teaching them" or "it is impossible to discuss them as a whole since they are tied specifically to content", I say they are the missing the point. While some bemoan the lack of focus on the core knowledge, I could just as easily say, Hey show me the research that states this core content is crucial. Having deep understanding of calculus, world history, literature, or quantum physics does not help you become a successful professional... my mechanic, chiropractor, and local sportswriter are all the best in the area and none need any of that knowledge. And while there are professions that do (say an engineer), the successful ones are successful because of the aforementioned beattitudes, when compared to other engineers.

Our problem is not that we can't teach 21st century skills unless it is content specific, it is rather that we are content specific to begin with. When we compartmentalize our content in an effort to put it on a pedestal, we compartmentalize our learning of it, so that it has no relevance to the larger picture. 21st century skills, like the term or not, have that ability.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Your PLN

How do you learn?

That's a good question for every teacher in your school. Teachers are learners as well, and if they aren't learning, they aren't effective. Consider this snippet from Thomas Guskey:

I often suggest to principals that they stand outside of school at the end of the day when students are leaving. As they walk by, that principal ought to stop students randomly and ask, "Tell me, what did you learn today?" If the student says "Nothing", the principal ought to send them right back into the building. That child just spent 6 hours in a learning environment. Is it too much to expect that each child should have at least one successful learning experience each day? I don't think so!

I also suggest to principals that they stand at the teachers' parking lot on Friday afternoon. As teachers walk by, the principal ought to stop them randomly and ask "What did you learn this week as a teacher?" If the teacher says "Nothing!", the principal ought to send that teacher right back into the building, too. That teacher just spent a week in a learning environment as well.

We desperately need to change our definition of professional development, away from the top-down model where a principal (or the new en vogue term "building leadership team") has decided what everyone needs to and will learn. Move it towards a personal learning environment, or a personal learning network (PLN). The clip below is by Will Richardson:

Suffice it to say, there's a lot to learn out there. There are so many great thoughts by teachers throughout the world, and now, the tools of the 21st century can connect you and teachers in your building with those people and their thoughts. And best of all, the tools are two-way; it isn't the old internet where you just gather information, it is the two-way internet where you share your thoughts as well.

Where should you start? Below, I've highlighted 4 steps, each with a tool, that will best connect you:

1. Start using Delicious to share your bookmarks, and make sure to describe them by using tags. Use Delicious to find other people who are bookmarking the same sites or using the same tags, and expand your breadth of knowledge.

2. Create a Google Reader account and start subscribing to feeds. I'd recommend several blogs to get you going, including Karl Fisch, Wesley Fryer, and the aformentioned Will Richardson.

3. Use Twitter, a microblogging tool, where you can post updates of things you are doing, reading, or thinking about. And of course, use Twitter to follow what others are doing, reading, or thinking about as well.

4. Join a Ning, which is an online community, where again you can collaborate with other educators, sharing ideas and thoughts. I'm a member of Classroom 2.0, perhaps the largest educational Ning out there.

Iowa Educational Blogs

You will note right away: I don't know of many. Add your comments of Iowans blogging about education to build the list.

Iowa High Schools - a blog recapping some of news in Iowa high schools each week
Iowa Alliance for Arts Education - a blog highlighting both arts events as well as news from around the blogosphere
Dr. Z. Reflects - by UNI professor of education Leigh Zeitz
Dangerously Irrelevant - by Iowa State professor of education Scott McLeod
Angela Maiers - Angela is a literacy consultant working out of the Des Moines area
Converstations - by Mike Sansone, a social media consultant for businesses and education in the Des Moines area

Update: The Peripatetic Librarian - by Kathy Kaldenberg, media specialist for Solon Community School District
Nurse Consultant Updates - by MaryAnn Strawhacker, a blog for school nurses
United Community - a district blog for United Community School District by Superintendent Michele Schleuning
Wright Notes - a district blog for Earlham Community School District by Superintendent Michael Wright

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wesley Fryer on eliminating textbooks, the digital curriculum

Thought I'd share the ideas of Wesley Fryer, perhaps my favorite edublogger, in his latest post, as it ties in with our discussion of eliminating textbooks and the digital curriculum:

How I yearn for leadership in the state of Oklahoma which will help usher in the learning revolution. We don’t need to keep buying $75 textbooks for K-12 students in all the mandated content areas. That madness should stop now. We need Netbooks for EVERY student and teacher, in EVERY grade, starting in third grade. Yes, I love Macs dearly, but what leader of a 1:1 laptop learning initiative can financially justify a $1000 investment for hardware for each learner compared to a $250 Netbook? You can’t. The digital curriculum, networking infrastructure, and professional development which can be provided for learners with the money saved by purchasing Netbooks instead of full-blown $1000 laptops is staggering.

Oh by the way, Wes' post starts with looking at the difference between Canada's media's perception of education and the U.S's. Worth a read for us in Iowa.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Skype in Schools

As I mentioned before, Skype is a tool with great potential for your classroom. It provides the chance for connection, be it with another classroom or a professional in the field. And it is free.

I used to participate in the community when it was in existence. iSighted was a group of people who made themselves available for videoconferencing, putting their names in a directory for searching.

Now, there is a new service called Skype in Schools. Not only can you check for people to connect with for your classroom's project, but you can also make yourself available.

Tip of the hat to Dr. Z at UNI, who mentioned the service in his last blog. Both he and I are available there.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Call for Action: Get Rid of Grades

Of all the calls I make, this will be the one with the most inertia. The easiest logistical one to do and the hardest to get done. There will be too much dragging of feet on this one.

We should eliminate grades in our schools. Not assessment, but grades. They are more than outmoded... they are harmful for our kids.

Now, before I'm pigeon-holed as Alfie Kohn, I should say... well, you are right. My thoughts do mirror his very closely. But I've reached my conclusion through my own experiences. I have yet to see grades help kids.

Here is what I have seen. I have seen many, many conversations about the grade and not the learning. Many of those have been with the students. Many more of those have been with parents, on behalf of their students, of which many times involves some shady half-truths being said by the students to the parents, causing a tense conflict based on misconceptions. And why would students give shady half-truths (it's not my fault... the teacher didn't accept my work)? Grades are often further incentivized by money for A's and grounding for F's. You would do some shady half-truths too.

Many of those conversations have come between me and myself. I've agonized over the correct number of points to have a quiz so that it fit within the grand grading scheme for the course. I've had to balance objectives against objectives on the value of their points. I've had to scrutinize grades down to the half-point. I've spent much of the time I should have been helping students getting better on grading.

And, that's the biggest problem. Grades do not help students get better. Students accept what is given. The grades promote mediocrity. Think about the message... here is an objective, and you scored about 80% on it, which fits you in about halfway in our class. There's no impetus to improve on the 20% you've missed out in, because as many teachers have in their grading schemes, the chance to make up the missed points takes away the consequences for missing the original deadline. So, we can't have that, can we?

One maxim I live by in education, if something is worth knowing, it is worth knowing 100%. And, students should keep working on it until they get 100%. And, all else should be eliminated or enrichment.

Which brings up to what I saw as a principal. Teachers would hand out grades and assume that their work is done as well, and they would move on to the next item. After all, students were in control of their grades. There's this unwritten rule that grades absolve a teacher from having to re-teach material.

One of the best ways to judge the quality of a teacher is to set up a hypothetical: If three-fourths of your students got F's on the latest quiz, what is running through your mind? The not-so-good teachers will blame the students... they aren't studying. Or, perhaps the parents... they aren't making sure the students study. The good teachers will blame, or at least, point responsibility to themselves. What can I do to help students so that they learn this material, they will think. That is after all, the point of school, that students learn the material--not to be the judge of who is learning and who isn't.

And, that leads me to the 3rd thing I saw. They only rank and sort kids. They are a big way of saying "How do you compare to everyone else?" We never get a chance to have students compare themselves to... themselves. Never to look at how much they have grown, or what they have left to do. Never to let them have individual goals and plans. No, they are judged against everyone else, and then reminded over and over about how they do. Think of the message that printing honor rolls and having awards assemblies based on grades does for students. Is there any reflection on these things about what we have learned? No. Just who received what grade.

And, it isn't like grading is a science. How about this quote from Paul Dressell of Michigan State University:

A grade (is)... an inadequate report of an imprecise judment of a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of materials.

If we are going to base all of our worth and value of educational achievement in something, it should be something a little more descriptive than a "C+", whatever that can mean.

The first that proponents will mention is that grades motivate students. Nonsense. Well, not to learn, at least (perhaps it motivates them to jump through hoops to gain the grade they would like). When students focus on the grade, the learning, and the benefits of the learning in of itself, become secondary.

Is that the type of motivation you want? Imagine having an employee who says to you "How much do I have to do to get a raise?"

When learning becomes secondary, grades determine the curriculum. Teachers begin to choose assignments that are easily quantifiable. They come up with absurd distributions (this test on verb conjugation will be as many points as that essay we wrote last week, despite only 10 minutes being spent on it). And, all conversations with students... and parents revolve around it. I felt like I partook in a ritual dance each parent-teacher conference. Instead of discussing what the student knew and didn't know (and how that set them for their future), we talked about what they needed to do to get a B.

Bottom line: if you can't get your students to do an activity without the threat of a grade being given to them, you need to start questioning the relevance of your material and your ability to engage learners. And, hopefully you are meeting your rule of 88.

A second, far-distant objection is that colleges depend on grades. That, without honor rolls and valedictorians and all the other methods of ranking and sorting, colleges won't know who to select. Given that half of students drop out from college, I'm not putting too much stock in colleges' selection criteria. If colleges want to improve the selection process, we can partner with them, but their relying on us to do something harmful to kids is not partnership... we are being taken advantage of, at our kids expense.

The answer is a standards-referenced report card. List out your standards. Show models of how students in the past have met those standards. Then, allow students some flexibility in 1) prioritizing the standards and the meaning they have on their future plans, and 2) how they achieve those standards. Let students create a portfolio. Develop better formative and summative assessments, whose data show students where they sit. Let students adjust their learning on the basis of that data.

Let students demonstrate their learning by demonstrating their work to their parents. Have the portfolio or presentations replace report cards. Put the emphasis on what the student has learned, not the hoop.

And let me not forget this: Let students collaborate and learn in coexistence. They don't have to be cut-throat to go for the best grade or feel the need to cheat to achieve. They don't need to make base lies to cover up for a poor grade. Getting rid of grading puts all people--the student, their fellow classmates, the teacher, and the parents--on the same side.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Textbook free in chemistry

An article from Geoff Ruth in Edutopia. Ruth gives an excellent overview of the thinking involved by an educator making the textbook-free plunge. And he does so in a field--chemistry--that skeptics would be less likely to scoff at (not as easy of a plunge as if he were a literature teacher).

The paragraph that hits closest to home:

Teaching without a textbook means more prep time, especially in the first few years. It means amassing and adapting curriculum from a wide variety of sources, including journals, lab books, Web sites, packaged curricula, and other teachers. It means mapping this collection to the standards of your school and state. In addition, it means proactively engaging and persuading the administration, the teaching staff, and the parents that ditching the textbook is in the students' best interests. But it's worth this effort. My students are more engaged, they understand more and act out less, and they develop a deeper comprehension of the subject matter.

New Technology High Schools

For those who are involved with their district's Iowa Core leadership teams, you are familiar with the New Technology High Schools, if not by name, then by sight. They are the high schools that are featured in the video clips that illustrate the pedagogy favored in the Iowa Core. Those who attended the High School Summit not only saw several clips during the 21st Century Skills session, but also heard first-hand accounts from Judy Jeffrey, as she visited a school in Texas that made an impact on her.

The schools may have several advantages that districts in Iowa can't afford. They have access to state-of-the-art technology, they maintain small class sizes, and they have the ability to refuse registration. Talk to your local principal if you think these are small details.

Still, the teaching that exists in the video clips is different than teaching in Iowa. A lot different. And it is easy to see why there is buzz amongst progressives and change agents in Iowa, myself included. You can see learning happen, you can see students wanting to be there and learning in an authentic environment.

On one of the handouts from Napa New Technology High School's website, they structure this difference in 5 areas:

By keeping class sizes small, the school not only can personalize education so much easier, but they can make cross-curricular integration not only the rule instead of the exception, but invisible as well. There is no surprise to find out that you will be working on a project with the math teacher and English teacher together.

Many of our schools are relegated to the factory model, somewhat because of limited resources, but probably more so out of tradition. Curriculum is standardized and tracked.

No bells or hall passes at the New Technology High Schools. As a principal, I cannot say how much fruitless time I spent hunting down students because they were in the hallways, not fitting in to our model of how they should regulate themselves (no urinating unless it is in this 2-minute window). The key concept here is that the New Technology High School empowers the student to learn self-management.

Surprise! I like this too.

These schools have made the jump away from "compartmentalized, unrelated, short-term experiences". And scantrons.

Speaking about empowerment, through the use of project-based learning, the New Technology High Schools put the students in charge of their learning. But, they do it well. I've seen several projects in our schools which have become exercises in tri-fold poster displays... these do not develop any worthwhile long-lasting skill, let alone leadership. The NHTS schools have much more thoroughly crafted projects for students to tackle.

Just a quick example. In one of the videos, students are creating presentations that they will share with the community, and will face the working world's scrutiny. That in itself is an authentic project for an authentic audience. But what's more, students were not given a lesson on how to properly make footnotes and citations, even though they were expected to do so. A student had to request a "work session" where they would ask questions of the instructor and the instructor would answer them. This work session was optional... about half the class attended the one I viewed. Students who already knew the material didn't have to attend (and be bored from pointless review).

Who determines what the student needs to know but doesn't know? The student. That's empowerment.

You might be wondering where the "technology" comes into their name. Key for them is a 1:1 setup, giving "access to workplace tools". But, it isn't the tools themselves. It is the fact that the tools give them the ability to do meaningful learning. Collaborative learning. Learning that gets away from some simple "web research, typing reports, and solving basic math equations", which you might see considered as "integration" in other schools.

I do see the smaller schools as important to the flexibility needed for this type of school to flourish. Ironically, with our current budget situation, we'll have fresh calls for more consolidations. Perhaps we need to look at schools within school models to make these smaller learning communities.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Resolution

For my resolution... I will start twittering. I've had an account for a while, but have never found the time.

Hopefully this goes better than my exercise plan I've had the past three New Year's.

I am eabbey if you want to follow me. For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, start here. For those who have no idea how to get started, I'm relying on this resource from Angela Maiers.