Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wagner and the Flip Camera

One technology coordinator jokingly grumbled with me: "Darn that Tony Wagner. My superintendent goes and sees him last Wednesday, and now I've got to buy all these Flip cameras!"

Which was very near the first words out of my mouth when Tony Wagner told the audience on Sept 16 that his favorite professional development technology was the easy-to-use camera. I'm down on record as saying "there will be 200 different purchase orders for those cameras across the state tomorrow".

First off, the camera. It is very popular, even among camera enthusiasts (our Final Cut Pro trainer, a professional photographer, said that for video quality, the camera rivals many of the more expensive models). I'm not a video camera expert at all, but visiting with a couple of individuals at Heartland who are, they mentioned their Flip cam has better video quality than their 3-chip camcorders that were about 3 years old.

Of course, they also mentioned that while Flip was the rage, there are several viable alternatives out there that might be even better. One of which is the Creative Vado, that has gotten some press recently. Here's a list of some others.

The central point is, Flip or competitor, these cameras are point-and-shoot easy to use, yet still have a much improved picture quality. They are lightweight, which means an administrator could carry one in their pocket and be ready for any instructional moment. And, they are easy to load, as video is recorded in a FLV file (it doesn't have to be "imported", just copied). In other words, the workflow to go from video opp to video-watching opp is infinitely better.

This is why Tony Wagner is a fan. He made several strong statements about why our schools haven't been able to improve. For example, "Teachers working alone, with little or no feedback on the quality of their lessons, will not be able to improve significantly, no matter how much professional development they receive".

This is a profound insight that I agree with completely. First, much off professional development stays in levels of abstraction, with words like "rigor", "rubric", "authentic assessment", "quality instruction", and "educational outcomes" bantered around. What PD is often short on is specific definitions of each with examples. A "high rigor lesson is... and is not..." with examples of each.

Because of that, teachers walk away from professional development re-inforcing their own understanding of what quality teaching is. We all agree "rigor" is important, and yet, we all have different classroom instruction. There needs to be the opportunity for calibrating.

Enter video. Have teachers watch video clips so they can calibrate their understanding of all professional development terms. What is this teacher doing well for classroom management? Is this teacher using effective formative assessment and feedback in this lesson?

But don't stop there. Allow the recording of teachers' lessons, and ensure the oppotunity for teachers to work with each other in PLC's. You can provide as much PD as you want, but unless you get to this level of analysis, where it comes back to the actual teaching in the classroom, you have no assurances of improvement.

This is all great, and I am a firm advocate for this practice. However, as I pushed back on the conversation at my table during the conference, there are huge pitfalls to doing this that need to be overcome. I'll look at those tomorrow.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Conversations with Vic Jaras

Vic has been busy recently, working on E2T2, ARRA, as well as creating partnerships with Google. He had a chance to share information with the Heartland area tech coordinators this past Thursday. Here are some of the things he shared.

• He will be conducting a statewide webinar on October 7 for E2T2 (and will have a follow up session in Cedar Rapids and Council Bluffs). The RFP's deadline is Nov. 24. He also has put together a set of FAQ's on the DE website to help answer questions about the submission process.

• While E2T2 and ARRA use the same guidance structure, they are two separate funding opportunities with their own set of rules. Vic mentioned that ARRA will have more transparency requirements and faster reimbursement cycles than E2T2. Also, the state's media service directors met in September and are looking to invest a bulk of their ARRA dollars into online learning. This could help pave the way for some statewide funding of instructional design positions, some additional purchased content, or some opportunities for local districts to reimburse teachers who create online content.

• Speaking of which, the DE continues to emphasize the need to create online content that would be available for emergency situations. Vic is looking into agreements for temporary telecom assistance should a disaster befall a district, and having a repository of online content could assure that instruction continues, come tornado, flooding, or flu. Both Vic and I will be presenting on online education at Monday's Risky Business conference.

• Finally, Vic has worked with Google to develop a partnership. For Iowa schools, they will have free access to enhanced accounts of Google Earth, as well as Google Sketchup, a 3-D development tool allowing students to create in Google Earth as a virtual development. Google has set up a train-the-trainer day Heartland will be hosting (on October 1). Vic mentioned representatives from each AEA will be there, as well as some LEA representatives. After that date, registration codes would be available for schools.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Changes to the Heartland Mandatory Training Site

We have rolled out our new online training site. While the site maintains the same trainings as before (including Mandatory Reporter for Child/Dependent Adult Abuse, OSHA trainings, Ethics for Educators, and 504 training), the trainings themselves have been updated.

Some of the benefits of the new site:
  1. It features a "student portfolio". A teacher logs in before registering for a particular course. Once they have logged in, they are able to see all the courses they are registered for and have completed, as well as the status of the courses (it mentions if and when that certification expires).
  2. The student portfolio allows teachers to print all their own certificates without having to retake/work their way back through the course.
  3. The student portfolio allows teachers to go back in and review the content as a reference without having to "register" for the course again.
  4. The overall look is updated, more stable and user-friendly.
When a teacher first logs in to the system, they will need to register. We've highlighted where to do that in the picture above. For those looking for assistance operating the new site, we have some tutorial videos available on how to register, sign up for a training, navigate, print certificates, change settings, and review material.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wagner for those who missed it

Dr. Tony Wagner's presentation at the Polk County Convention Center on Wednesday was very well attended; packed actually (I almost didn't have a place to sit for lunch). Best about it was the high level of LEA participation. My former home district of Decorah sent a delegation to make the 3.5 hour trip to hear Wagner, and visiting with a couple of them, they said it was well worth it.

That's the critical piece. Those at the DE and the AEAs are familiar with the Wagner's work, but visiting with several teachers and administrators, the general consensus was that LEA educators were not. They had heard him mentioned and maybe had seen a list of his 7 survival skills, but had not read his books.

So for those educators on the front lines of changing our schools, hearing Wagner speak candidly about what schools need to do to change, giving many concrete examples of schools doing it now, and not slipping into "the sky is falling... we're so far behind" panic that other speakers are guilty of, was a potential vision-crystallizing event.

Unfortunately... not every LEA educator (or district for that matter) was able to attend. So, here's a primer of the basics of what he said, much of which can be grabbed by reading The Global Achievement Gap and Change Leadership.

There is a convergence in the skills needed for college, the work force, or to be a productive citizen... we don't prepare student for one or the other now. Those 7 survival skills, or the lack of them, is leading to higher dropout rates in high school and college (the US has slipped from #1 in the world at college completion in 1995 down to #13 in 2005). This is because students are not "college and work ready" when completing high school (white & Asian students = 37%, Aftrican American students = 20%, and Hispanic students = 16%).

Students in this day are motivated differently than students in past generations. That isn't to say they aren't motivated. They are motivated differently. Students are using the web for extending friendships, self-directed learning, and for self-expression. They are constantly connected (except in school), and have an accompanying need for instant gratification. And students are less interested in doing things for money as they are to making a difference... doing worthwhile work.

  1. Critical thinking/problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination
Not increased content standards, more testing, or smaller schools, at least not by themselves. They won't lead to improved performance alone.

Speaking of alone, teachers cannot work with little to no feedback on the quality of their lessons.

Wagner says "The challenge of change leadership is to create a 'system' for continuous improvement of teachers' lessons and supervision in a common vision of the performance standards students must meet."

1. Holding ourselves accountable for what matters most. Not focusing on AYP when graduation and college completion is more critical for student success than "proficiency". And using assessments that measure the 7 survival skills instead of content knowledge.

2. Doing the new work. Using constructivist learning strategies that emphasize the survival skills. This includes requiring all students to do internships or group service projects, because the learning is authentic.

3. Doing the new work... in new ways. Developing teacher collaborative teams, like professional learning communities. Utilizing video to tape teaching, and then reviewing the video to concretely see what's working and what isn't. And assuring every student has an adult advocate driven to make sure the child succeeds.

1. Use Data Strategically. This includes disaggregating the data and keeping it simple, but also dramatizing it to make real. Wagner shared the story of the "living bar graph", where an educator took 10 students with her to various community meetings and had 7 sit down to illustrate the point of the number who weren't ready for college. By doing so, community members would frequently come up to the educator on the street and ask the question "how are we doing this year? Are we improving?"

2. Create Consensus on Priorities through Dialogue. This means talking about what is important for students to know and be able to do when they graduate, and in light of that, what are the schools strengths and weaknesses. What should the school do to meet those needs?

3. Collect Qualitative Data. This means asking students and recent graduates for their perspective, especially on the schools strengths and weaknesses, what would be some things they would change, and what they feel good teaching looks like.

Wagner touched on several other topics which I'll touch base on in the future, including:
  • Unpacking what we mean by "critical thinking"
  • Calibrating "rigor" so that all educators have an understanding of what makes a lesson effective
  • How to use videotaping to improve professional practice
  • The purposes and best practices of a "learning walk"
  • Holding focus groups of students, and the questions to ask
  • Effective constructivist learning (avoiding the meaningless posterboard project)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Follow up on Moodle Uses

Thought I'd quickly link to this post by Joseph Thibault. He's got some examples of Moodle courses for the eight steps of Moodle. Worth a read.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Degrees of Moodle Use in the Classroom

One tool quickly gaining the interest of schools is Moodle, the open-source learning management system. It is at the same time extremely versatile and free, making it a favorite.

However, Moodle is not for the faint of heart. After showing it to teachers, I often hear something along the lines of "Whoa, that is a lot more complicated than a wiki!"

Yes, that's true.

But, you can also do much more with it. Not just in terms of individual tasks, like a discussion board and a database, but also big-picture outlook. You have several different starting points. And best of all, you can start and just get your feet wet, or when you are ready, you can always progress in your use. There are many acceptable levels of use that improve your classroom instruction... you don't have to become fully immersed in it to use it well.

While the list below isn't all-encompassing, here's a common look at the different steps in Moodle use in a K-12 classroom:

1. Repository - Teachers often start with Moodle just by taking their worksheets and handouts saved in MS Word or as .PDFs and uploading them to Moodle. Immediately, you have a place for students to get their classroom resources, at school or at home.

2. Links to Websites - The next step for teachers is to take the handouts of classroom activities, especially those that involve browsing on the internet, and make them into a page right in Moodle. Then within that page, they can insert the live links. Suddenly the paper assignments have become digital assignments with a launch-pad to the internet.

3. Classroom Calendar - Using the calendar block, teachers can put in upcoming classroom events, such as assignment due dates or the dates of tests. This works well not only for students, but also for parents.

4. Digital Assignment Dropbox - Until this moment, the Moodle course could be used without any student accounts (open for all to see). But if the teacher takes it to the next step and has her students make accounts, the student can turn in their homework via Moodle assignments. What's nice, it allows for submission at home (at all hours of the night) and stamps it with a date & time when it is turned in.

5. Classroom Discussion Board - There are some big limitations to class discussions face-to-face. One, not every student gets to speak. Two, not every student gets to interact with every other student. Three, there is a limit on time. And four, if a student isn't prepared for class that day, they often cannot participate. But with a Moodle discussion board, a topic can be discussed at any time during the day, and it makes it easy for all to interact and for the teacher to see what each student has added.

6. Enrichment - Frustrated by trying to differentiate instruction with only 2 ears? Teachers can create enrichment or acceleration units in Moodle that offer learning at a different pace than the regular class.

7. Supplement - After one gets familiar with Moodle, they see that there are some assignments that are better done digitally online. Even though students might report to the same room, more and more of their time can be done in the digital world of Moodle. This includes online quizzes, wikis, and lesson modules in Moodle.

8. Full Online Course - The final step, but not necessarily one that leaves the school's building. Think of a senior project or a seminar done independently by students via Moodle.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

No Presidential Speech for My Kids

Not of my choosing, of course.

The district my kids attend were one of several schools in Iowa that did not air the speech. Here are the official reasons given to parents (all caps = district's emphasis):

  1. There will be no organized school-wide or grade level viewings in any of our schools
  2. If this speech supplements curriculum being taught, AT THE CURRENT TIME, by a teacher - it is at the discretion of the teacher to show it or not
  3. Parents may make a decision to keep their children at home during this hour long speech and they will be excused for that hour only
  4. The district will post the President's speech on the district website for students, parents and others to view later in the day
After some digging, it was determined that this was because of "8-10 calls and emails from concerned parents". For some scale, my kids attend a 4A school district. Those calls represented less than 1% of the student body.

My initial thoughts:
• This screams of the path of least resistance. Not that that position is always a bad one... as an administrator, you make a dozen decisions a day that you aren't too crazy about, but you do so because they are going to cause the least amount of controversy. The district just voted on the use of their one-cent sales tax yesterday, and as any district coming up to a vote can tell you, extra controversy is not what you want when coming to a public vote. The part where parents can keep their kids home (presumedly to watch the speech?) without consequence, and that the speech was posted on the website, are very telling.

• I cannot figure out "if this speech supplements curriculum being taught--AT THE CURRENT TIME" (again, the district's emphasis). This is a speech about setting goals and taking your academic efforts seriously. Is that truly a place in the curriculum? "Class, tomorrow we will be learning about the importance of education and then we'll take a quiz." Is it like other objectives, that are covered once in the 13 years?

Self-awareness, responsibility, and self-worth are 21st century skills. You do not teach 21st century skills "at a current time". They are infused in the curriculum. They are always present. Any teachable moment that comes up, you try to foster the 21st century skills. A speech from the nation's president and a follow up discussion is the perfect opportunity for a teachable moment. I've thought that perhaps this is a wink-wink code to teachers that basically permits them to show the video because it can always be argued the speech fits in the curriculum... that's the best I can do with this.

• Speaking of 21st century. I remember the powerful experience of turning on the TV on 9/11 eight years ago. We were in the middle of Fahrenheit 451 at the time, but that went by the wayside. The students at Postville, as well as everywhere else, were mesmerized by what they saw. I said simply "Get out your journals and write. Write about whatever comes to your mind." Even the most resistant journal writers in my class did so immediately and could not stop themselves from writing and afterward discussing.

I'm disappointed that the message I received from my kids school is that we don't allow the current world to creep in. We do our education in an incubated box.

• I had, both as an administrator and a teacher, the chance to be ruthlessly attacked for "forcing" my students to read "racist trash"... aka Huckleberry Finn. Six different occasions in all. We made other options for the students, which was met with the charge of ostracizing the student who wasn't reading the book. Nothing less than the entire class not reading the novel was unacceptable for them. Every time I stood my ground, and every time, the parent of the student threatened to take the fight to the school board. And while they never did, my decision harmed my relationship with the parent in 5 of those 6 occasions. The parents never got past it.

The thing I had to tell myself is, do the right thing. The vocal minority do not dictate the curriculum. It would have been the path of least resistance to offer a different book, but even my students agreed, the discussion about whether the book was racist and what the author's purpose was, was one of the most powerful experiences they had in their high school career. Ironically, I never had a single parent object to Catcher in the Rye. As one student told me after he graduated, "there was no way I was going to tell my parents again what I was reading after they wouldn't let me read Huck Finn."

Bottom line to all of this: The decisions we make have to be what's in the best interest of learning, not the path of least resistance. This decision (at least what was communicated to the parents) was the opposite. It sets a very bad precedent, for it gives license by any small minority to tell the district you cannot show a future president's speech.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What people should be furious about, with Obama's education webcast

More controversy involving the president and his outspoken critics. The president will be making a web-based address to students next week, urging students to work hard and stay in school. And on cue, his Republican opponents are aghast at his "blatant use of indoctrinating students with his socialist ideology." Forcing students to listen to a message without an appropriate check, say House Minority leader John Boehner, is allowing students to only see one side of the story.

Not lost in this are three basic facts. One, it is optional. Not forced. Two, the content is not political. He won't be speaking about taxes or health care or the war in Afghanistan. He'll be asking students to work hard and set goals. John Boehner wouldn't say anything different about hard work and goal setting. And third, this is a politically-motivated controversy. It's not about the mere spreading of ideology; it is the specific ideology that people mistakenly think he'll spread. Case in point is when George HW Bush did the same, and met some resistance from democratic opponents. If the president was spreading his capitalist ideology, there wouldn't be a resistance from Republicans (there might be one from the Democrats, however).

Many people (for example, this one and this one) are jumping on these politicizing opponents, and I agree with them. But there are two things not being mentioned. Here's what no one... or at least no one with a loud enough voice... is saying:

We should be outraged at fluff. That is not to say that Obama's message will be fluff, but it is set up to be just that. I grew up during the "Just Say No" campaign as well as Channel One. Substance-deficient messages dumbed down to trivial soundbites. I believe the message of hard-work and goal-setting is a positive message, but it means nothing if there is just repetition of a mantra. The accompanying lesson plans that are the cause of controversy are the best someone can do from a distance. It takes local teachers to lead critical discussions about the message and lead to deeper change. But that never happened for me. When I was growing up, Channel One was a time-filler, never leading to a critical conversation afterwards. As soon as it was done, the teacher would turn off the TV and say, "Okay, turn your books open to page 42."

Fluff isn't going to indoctrine anyone. Unfortunately, it won't educate anyone either. It will be ignored.

• We should be outraged that kids are expected to be easily indoctrinated. We are a nation bombarded with advertising and messaging all the time. We don't give students enough credit; they are not zombies sucking up everything as gospel truth. They are naturally more skeptical than their parents were. That's our changing society, where you can't trust anyone (even the president). Let's treat them with some respect for their abilities instead of "sheltering them".

Under the circumstances, this would be a great chance to model constructive civic discussion. A great chance to have students analyze "the truth". Here, we have the president who is emphasizing the importance of visiting with our nation's students, and we have politicized the discussion. Which means when there is a Republican president, they too will not be able to speak with students without it becoming political.

For now, I guess I'll be outraged by myself.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fall Online Courses in Leadership, Technology

A quick look at the courses I'm offering online this fall & winter:

Leadership, Technology & 21st Century Schools (3 cr. - Nov 9-Jan 29)

Course Description: Scott McLeod argues: "Without leadership, the great and wide-spread change our schools need cannot take place. Unfortunately, the people in charge of leading school organizations into the 21st century often are the least knowledgeable about the 21st century."

In this course, participants will examine and discuss the changes necessary for schools. They will develop their own personal technology skills and analyze frameworks for implementing a digital curriculum in their buildings. They will examine the role leadership plays in this process. And, they will then improve their professional practice by developing their own action plan.

The work in this class builds on the McREL traits of leadership, but participation in previous Leadership Academies is not a pre-requisite.

Developing Personal Learning Networks (1 cr. - Nov. 9-22)

Course Description: Professional development in the 21st century is changing towards Professional Learning Communities and Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). In this online course, we will look at George Siemens' connectivism learning theory and the implications for the way educators learn. We will examine how to structure systemic change to move your individual (or district) practice towards a PLN, utilizing social media tools such as Delicious, RSS, Twitter, and Nings to improve practice

Presentation Zen: Improving Your Approach to Presentations (1 cr. - Oct 12-25)

Course Description: We've all been there: a presentation that isn't working. The message gets lost, the audience becomes distracted, or altogether disinterested. Otherwise known as death by power point.

We use presentations to communicate, share ideas, teach, and persuade. Unfortunately, many of the practices we are taught for presentations actually hurt our objectives. Bulleted lists, sound effects, and small graphics take our audience's attention off our intended meaning and put it on the presentation itself.

This course helps participants understand and practice the principles of "Presentation Zen" outlined in Garr Reynolds' book. It allows participants the chance to reflect on their own professional practice and communication skills, and improve their own presentations for better meaning. And it puts the focus back on presentation as a process of teaching and learning.

Technology for Online Instruction: Moodle and Adobe Connect Pro (2 cr. - Jan 11th-Feb 14th)

Course Description: With the demand for online instruction rising, both in K-12 and for professional development, instructors need support in understanding the available tools and their appropriate pedagogical use.

This course will help teachers feel comfortable using Moodle and Adobe Connect Pro, equipping them with tools and skills to create and deliver online instruction. Participants will develop content in the Moodle platform, including activities, forums, lessons, and assessments. Participants will also create and facilitate webinars in Adobe Connect Pro, using desktop sharing and interactive features. Skills and concepts will be analyzed in context of the Iowa Online Teaching Standards and Course Standards.


All the courses will take place online. Graduate credit will be made available through Drake University. Interested participants can register at the Heartland Professional Development Catalog.

Also, to see other online AEA Professional Development offerings for teachers, including from different AEAs in Iowa, check out the Iowa Learns website.