Thursday, April 30, 2009

School Technology Policies with Matt Carver

Matt Carver, director of legal services for School Administrators of Iowa, met with Heartland's technology coordinators at their April meeting and hit upon several issues in schools:

  • Overall, there is no "silver bullet" when it comes to technology policies. If a policy isn't working for a district, they should change it so that it fits their needs.
  • That said, he recommended every district have a policy that states a student needs permission from an administrator or his/her designee to capture images or video in school. Not to make classroom projects involving visual literacy more difficult (teachers can be the administrator's designee), but to guard against cyberbullying and trying to "trap" teachers.
  • He also recommends that schools post a reminder pop-up window when students log into a computer (as well as a physical sticker on the computer) that states schools have the right to monitor usage.
  • There is no law that states districts must keep every email made by employees. Email is like any other correspondence and can be discarded like any other correspondence (like throwing away hall-pass slips). What should be kept is an overall record of when people logged in to send/receive email.
  • When a district should keep all emails is when an event occurs that could possibly lead to future litigation. Carver mentioned the district would be expected to have communications that occurred after it became apparent to them that such an issue was serious that it could lead to litigation, not before. Moreover, it would be in a district's best interest to have those emails to squash unsubstantiated claims by other parties.
  • The district could put forward a policy for teachers to keep records of emails that fit into certain categories (i.e. communication with parents) for a length of time (5 years) and can delete other communication that doesn't fit into those categories.
  • All districts should have a conversation about what teacher-student electronic communication is appropriate. Friending in Facebook is a discussion starter for schools. He strongly urges all communication from teachers to students is done in an official form (static webpage) or via phone.
  • While schools do have quite a bit of leeway in search and seizure of student property, a cell phone accidentally going off is not reasonable suspicion that allows a faculty member to search through the phone.
  • Sexting is the new hot-button issue. Very important: all creating, possessing, or distributing of photos of a naked student is against the law. Administrators should never transfer a photo from a student's cell phone to their own computer as evidence in their investigation. They should instead have a like-gendered person document in writing the picture that was found, and then delete the picture. The phone should not go home with the picture still on it, regardless of the action the school takes in the situation.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Laptops as School Supplies

With several schools in Iowa looking at going 1:1, many are encountering the question of expense. Jim Klein poses an excellent question, when do laptops become school supplies?

Think about this for a second. In many schools, we require students to have TI-## graphing calculators, notebooks, dictionaries, and many other supplies that can add up in cost. How about purchasing a $300-$400 netbook that can easily last 3-4 years? In some families, the kids already have laptops, and for others, they would be able to rent from the school for a reduced price.

With the learning power that comes with the computer, it is far more instrumental a tool than all the other school supplies a student could purchase, to be dynamically used in all curricular areas, transforming their education. Where else could you get that potential of a difference for $100 a year?

And with primary cost out of the hands of the school, now the only thing that stands in its way is the school's willingness to handle a multi-platform environment. Which, shouldn't stand in the way of a school taking their curriculum into the 21st century.

Klein comments on the feasibility of this:

The trick, of course, will be achieving critical mass of parent supplied netbooks. 60% probably isn't enough, unless the district has the wherewithal to provide enough backup equipment to accommodate the other 40%. But, if the parents provide 70-80%, and those who don't are provided with equipment to use at school and all the software for use at home, have we achieved our goal? When do the laptops become school supplies? If we no longer have to teach students how to use the laptops themselves, no longer have the burden of providing significant support for them or training on how to use them, and we make sure all of the tools are free and easily accessible no matter what device the student uses, does the laptop suddenly become like a calculator? One of many means to an end?

Interesting food for thought.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Digital Curriculum, Student Research, and Diigo

As schools move their curriculum into the digital format, bypassing printed resources in favor of digital resources, there are fears abound about rampant cut and paste. The popularity of Wikipedia, and its accompanying scrutiny by teachers, exasperate the issue.

But exasperating the issue of research is not a bad thing. What passes as "research" in many of our nation's schools is troubling, and in many other cases, teachers set up high expectations for research without any scaffolding to help students get there.

What often students expected when it came to research (and very likely what was expected of them), was being given a topic to find some information about, going to some sources, finding the information, and then writing the information in correct essay form. Often, students were somewhat familiar with citing sources... perhaps they had exposure to it one time.

This, of course, is not research. "You've done book reports," I told them about their earlier years. And don't get me wrong, book reports have their place. It's the skills of summarizing the main ideas and communication through composition. And, sharing of information to the rest of the class is an effective way of individualizing learning and even sparking engagement.

Problem is, that is done way too much. Students "researched" an element of the periodic table, only to write up in an essay what its atomic number, mass, and isotopes are. Students "researched" Costa Rica to regurgitate what its chief exports, GDP, and style of government were. Students "researched" an artist to state what years they lived, what style they painted, and how they died. Fill in your own example here. All of these are book reports.

What made sense to students was the analogy of buying a car. This is mainly because, students were already actively researching which car they would be buying next year without even knowing it qualified as "research". (Probably the lack of a bibliography threw them)

Students have trouble seeing that research is the act of finding an educated answer to a question... a question that isn't a cut and dry question. By all the book reports they have done throughout their years, they have learned that the answer is always there, but you have to find it in three places to make the teacher happy.

But what if the question is "what car should you get?" Suddenly, students see the answer depends on a lot of variables. It's not cut and dry at all. It's an argumentative/persuasive process. Go and find the answer, and then assemble your supporting evidence to convince everyone else you found the right answer.

What helps with the car analogy is the next question, "what resources would you use to find your answer?" No, you aren't going to start with Motor Trend. You are going to look at statistics--horsepower, cargo room, gas mileage, and most importantly, price. You are going to ask experts for their opinions, such as your mom and dad, or the non-academically/athletically inclined grease monkey student who now has become the most valuable student opinion in the room. And most of all, you are going to experiment, as in go for a test drive.

That's research. You get a variety of information from all these places, and then you synthesize it to answer your question. And your answer could very well look different than your neighbor's. In fact, as a teacher, if I'm assigning a research project where I already know what the correct answer is, I'm not doing an effective job. That's reason #1 we get cut-and-paste.

When we taught a cross-curricular 1960s research unit, students didn't research a topic. We started with the following research question:

The 1960s have been a labeled as a decade where people tried to go against tradition (or the status quo) wherever they could. They did so in the form of a “massive cultural revolution”. But, how revolutionary was it? By selecting a specific topic, argue whether the 1960s have been more revolutionary than the 2000s or not. Use research to back up your conclusions.

And the results were exciting. Students having to determine whether the Beatles were more revolutionary than Eminem. The miniskirt more revolutionary than the women's pants-suit. The Civil Rights Act more revolutionary than Civil Union legislation. There even were students who neverbefore had an interest in social studies, language arts , or math, do a statistical analysis on the 60s muscles cars vs. the cars of today.

Individualized. Rigorous. Authentic. That's the power of a good research unit.

But it doesn't happen with just a good research question. The second big problem is that students are often expected to do research without ever being taught how to.

Students need meta-cognitive help to understand each step to the research process. A teacher should not assume this is done somewhere else in a student's career... it needs to be done in their classroom. Break down the steps.

  • Formulate your research question
  • Determine what type of information you will need
  • Identify what good sources would be to find that information (including sources from "all angles")
  • Find and critique sources for quality, bias, etc.
  • Process those sources for information (note-taking)
  • Draw a conclusion from the information (or a hypothesis)
  • Synthesize your information into a composition or presentation (which of course has its own process)
This is where we often fail. There aren't many great lessons which teach students how to do these steps, and when there are, students often have problems transferring that meta-cognition to a different occasion and a different subject area.

One of the steps in particular, "process those sources for information", is always assumed to be known. The fact of the matter is, if you give students an article to read, students have a difficult time identifying what information is important for another purpose.

Diigo helps immensely. It is a social bookmarking tool that allows students to highlight and annotate an article, and then share annotations with others. You can share them publicly or with other invited people, like classmates.

After a teacher model and discussion about how you would do the process, students can each analyze an article separately, highlighting the 5 most salient points to proving X. Then after students are finished, everyone can turn the shared annotations on and see what others (including the teacher) have identified. Now you have working examples to use as a springboard about the "why is this fact important and this one not" discussion.

For more on Diigo and the research process, check out Will Richardson's recent post.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Examples of Cell Phones in the Curriculum

From Thursday's technology coordinator meeting, my colleague at Heartland Denise Krefting presented on how to use cell phones in the class room. With her was Susan Hope (communications teacher from Waukee) and Crista Carlile (science curriculum supervisor for Des Moines), both of whom demonstrated how they have used cell phones in the classroom.

All three shared several good applications, as we had a chance to test them out during the meeting. For teachers looking to experiment using cellular technology, this was a good discussion of what to think about.

By the way, the UStream streaming recording worked very well. Unfortunately, my camera skills are embarrassing. In an attempt to get my camera close enough to the projector to see text, I managed to not be able to film Susan.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Live Blogging from Heartland Tech Coordinators

At first blush, I really like Cover It Live. We didn't have many attending the meeting yesterday, but the tool provided an easy-to-set-up format for backchannel communication. Next for me is to gain some skill in facilitating this type of discussion, adding updates that are short yet meaningful.

Below is the transcript from the meeting.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Trying 3 New Things Today

When I dabble, I go all out it seems. There are three new things I'm trying out today, and I'll give some feedback after I've used them a while.

A twibe is another new way to group people through Twitter. One person creates a twibe and then others join. Any time a member tweets with one of the designated key words, the tweet appears in the twibe's feed. This takes the vastness of Twitter and helps people gather around a common theme, and also quickens networking.

Scott McLeod has formed two twibes for Iowa educators to join, one for teachers and one for administrators. While they were just formed today, I can see quite a bit of potential, helping many others join in on all the various Twittersphere discussions related to the Iowa Core.

There are several options for video recording out there. Many schools are in the video camera-to-iMovie stage, while some have progressed to using built-in webcams for video productions requiring quick setup.

USTREAM is a different option, one that is web 2.0. It allows the user to record or broadcast video from their computer. This means you don't need a whole lot of hard drive space for encoding (music to netbook users' ears) and it can be shared instantaneously. But more so than a videoconferencing tool, like Skype or XMeeting, this product does more to let unknown audiences (or those that just want to casually observe without taking part) watch.

We will be trying out the product during Heartland's Technology Coordinator's Meeting.

The phenomenon of backchannel conversation during live events is one item that will become big in education in the future. While Twitter or Edmodo provides one option, Cover It Live provides a different tool. This live-blogging tool is set up for specific events, and it too is broadcasted or shared privately, depending on your preference. The tool can be embedded on any website or blog, so other users can participate.

More so than microblogging, here you can have a controlled environment (only certain audience members instead of the whole Twittersphere), more administrative control on whether comments are allowed or not, and the ongoing discussion is put in one place, making it easier to see that it is a conversation.

I'll be testing out Cover It Live with our technology coordinator meeting as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Webquest

One of the favorite (and most challenging) units for my students was the cross-curricular environmental unit we would complete with some of the best science teachers in the state, Ola Nordkvist and Birgitta Meade. This included reading the philosophical novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. In spirit of Earth Day, I've shaken the dust off my teacher unit plans and included the webquest for the unit below. The cumulative projects (a persuasive essay and a debate) were items we did intensive process analysis throughout the course.


You are a member of the president's cabinet (one of a select group who advises the president on the actions he takes). The president doesn't know a thing about the environment, but knows he has to do something. He's worried he will make the wrong choice on policies, and not get re-elected to a second term!!! Oh Heaven's-to-Betsy. He is relying on you to give him some sound advice on the different topics.


You will be appointed as one of three roles--Economic advisor, Policy advisor, and Scientific advisor. You will be serving in that role as we explore environmental issues for the next six weeks. In that role, you will complete a series of tasks to help advise the president, including 1) blogs, 2) a persuasive essay, and 3) a debate.

Economic advisor Your role is to think about what is best for the American economy. Presidents are often judged on how well the economy is doing, so you need to make sure that unemployment is low. You also need to make sure the country is producing economic goods. This is measured by the Gross Domestic Product. You want to make sure whatever policies are put forward by the president, that they promote successful business.
Policy advisor Your role is to make sure the president is popular. This is done not only by approval ratings, but also by life expectancy. The higher the life expectancy, the higher the approval ratings. Of course, people also hate paying taxes. Nothing makes a president more unpopular than raising taxes. You need to make sure whatever policies the president supports are popular with the people.
Scientific advisor Your role is to make sure the nation's resources are maintained at healthy levels, and to make sure the president is making wise scientific decisions. You are concerned about how much fossil fuels are on hand, because if the country gets low, it ruins our way of life. You also want to make sure that the country does not become overpopulated.

It is important that you think about things from the viewpoint of either the economic, scientific, or policy advisor, even if you personally disagree with what they might say.


• First, we will take this likert-scale opinion survey. Then, we'll look at a few articles which introduce the current debate over global warming, both the environmental-activist side and the pro-business side. We will complete a blog over the articles on your initial thoughts on the environment.

• Next, you will be assigned one of the three roles in your groups.

• With that role in mind, we will look be looking at four related issues. For each issue, we will visit the SIRS website, study the overview of the issue, read the pros and cons of each side, and read one article for both the pro side and the con side. We then will complete a blog over how your role would view this issue. Be sure to mention the author of the articles that you read for each issue

Issue #1: Global Warming
Issue #2: Pollution
Issue #3: Endangered Species
Issue #4: Overpopulation

• Also with our role in mind, we will watch Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and complete a blog over how your role would view Mr. Gore's position. Be sure to take note of:

1. How does global warming take place?
2. How does Gore "know" that carbon dioxide is increasing (the "jagged line")? What images/photos support his claim?
3. Why isn't this a "cyclical phenomenon"?
4. What bad things does global warming bring about?
5. What is especially bad about the melting of the polar caps (there are several effects this will bring)?
6. What are the three chief causes of this rise in co2 emissions?

7. What are 3 misconceptions the world has about global warming that affect awareness?
8. What can be done about it?

• Next, in our groups, we will play the Global Warming policy game. Your group members will need to work together, as you are competing against other groups for the best statistics over the time period. When we are finished... you guessed it, a blog.

• After completing those items, we will conduct a debate on what should our president's environmental policy be. You will debate your group members during class time (the recording will be your May podcast). Mr. Abbey will be the moderator.

• Finally, you will write a persuasive essay to convince the president of the correct environmental policy. The topic for the essay is, "What should be America's environmental policy and why?"


Teacher-created Likert Scale on your opinions of the environment.
SIRS Researcher
Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth"
National Science Foundation's Global Warming Interactive Game


The debate (30 points) will be graded on the knowledge of the issues, the use of support for one's claims, the persuasiveness of the argument (and the rebutting of counter-arguments), and the delivery of presentation (see rubric).

The essay (40 points) will also be graded on the knowlege of issues, the support of one's claims, the persuasiveness of the argument, and will also include mechanics, variety of sentence structure, good essay/paragraph structure, and voice (see rubric).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Eliminating Silos

Imagine the irony. We need to eliminate silos in Iowa.

Of course, that isn't the building landmarks that paint our countryside. It is rather the separation of content areas that is often seen in high schools. Math kept in the math room, science in the labs, PE in the gym... well you know the drill.

Visiting with Jim Reese from the DE recently, I'm reminded by something he mentioned:

Our biggest challenge with rolling out the Iowa Core Curriculum is to get districts out of silos.

Unpack that for a second. The Iowa Core gives schools core content in the core subject areas of math, literacy, social studies, and science. In essence, it puts us further into silos, sending each content area off to work with that core content away from everyone else. This is not best practice... in fact, it is far from it. It is exactly what we have to avoid with 21st century skills.

Getting rid of silos is a challenge mainly because it goes against the rigid tradition of content separation in the high school. And it doesn't work to say "we're all teaching math now" for 2 reasons. 1) Not all subject areas work as smoothly with math, and it becomes a contrived solution, and 2) There still is a hierarchy; there are the math teachers who are the experts in the content and the other subject areas that are the novices... not an environment for change.

So, here's one idea to de-silo. The Iowa Core identifies content and there still are content experts who will work with the material. But let's shift thinking on the basis of 21st century skill outcomes. And then, let's build teams within our staff whose goal it will be to ensure students reach competency (or literacy) in that area. Teams that cut across curriculum areas, so there are no "experts" and "novices", but only team members. Team members with a natural tie in with the skill, not contrived.

The result is an articulated curriculum, where teachers are adapting and tying into other content's lessons. And these teams lead authentic cross-curricular projects that transcend the traditional class structure, as well as authentic assessments to measure proficiency. And these teachers become the lead for how that skill is infused across the curriculum, helping others tie into the main thrust of the school. What do I mean?

1) Skill #1: Logical Reasoning. How do we develop students' ability to gather and interpret data, using logical reasoning skills? Imagine math, science, and social science teachers working together to see how this skill can be developed across algebra, psychology, chemistry, and more.

2) Skill #2: Humanitarian (Empathetic) Thinking. Including ethics and philosophy, I've already mentioned the need to have students understand other people and the humanitarian condition. There's a natural fit here with social studies, foreign language, and language arts instructors. I've seen this in action with Grinnell's team-taught Humanities course.

3) Skill #3: Health Literacy. Getting health teachers, physical education teachers, family consumer science teachers, and counselors together to have a full discussion about what does it mean for a student to be health literate? That's the way to go to get to the whole child.

4) Skill #4: Financial Literacy. This is where I've seen "contrived" curriculum at its best (let's do a random "credit lesson" in the middle of our gym class). That doesn't help a student become literate. There are places where this skill fits better with curriculum and teachers can work together much better. This includes all the vocational areas (business, industrial technology, agriculture, etc.) and economics. The state's emphasis on "All Aspect of the Industry", which require schools to develop authentic projects in the vocational areas, help students understand how financial manangement fits in to the bigger picture.

5) Skill #5: Creativity. Some will disagree with this skill fitting into this framework. Surely this is an area that, unlike the others, does fit across the curriculum. Still, I feel it is best developed and enhanced in the visual, vocal, instrumental, and dramatic arts. And this is not a catch-all category or some bone thrown. As Sir Ken Robinson's The Element attests, creativity is as much of a core skill that should be developed in students as any other in the Iowa Core, perhaps more so. Imagine the arts teachers given a prominent leadership role in a school's instruction, helping other teachers understand how to develop creativity in their curriculum.

There are some notes of course. Special education and talented-and-gifted education teachers would work with these teams, having a different role, that of Teaching for Learner Differences advisor. Not on this list are a couple areas, reading and technology, that I do feel are truly cross-curricular and require the whole staff working as a team. All of these skills are undeniable important, and they give staff a rejuvenated focus on their profession. Whereas I might have taught language arts for 15 years before, what has my focus been on humanities? Or for the geometry teacher, logic? It provides an avenue for discussion and teamwork among our staff.

Most of all, it will lead to better learning. A student might be likely to forget math concepts having learned them in isolation only in the math room, but learning logical reasoning skills in a variety of contexts, all of which building off each other? That's where connections are made. And of course, I've got a spiffy graphic on the back of a napkin sitting in front of me... perhaps when I get a moment, I'll whip out Adobe Illustrator and make a jpg to share.

This isn't to say my idea is the end-all in this discussion. No school should feel it has to follow one model. There are many other ways a school district can break down silos and get teachers to work with other teachers in non-alike content areas. The key is to do so in a way that works for your school.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Exploring 1 to 1 Learning: Success Factors

Heartland hosted Apple's "Exploring 1 to 1 Learning" seminar on Friday. Apple of course has quite a bit of success receiving bids and working with schools on 1:1 initiatives, with many in Nebraska and Kansas (not to mention the Maine middle school initiative). But now, they are looking to make a serious effort to expand into Iowa, timely coinciding with the Iowa Core.

The day featured Barry Sevett and Brent Hayward from Apple to demonstrate the features of the computers themselves, but more importantly, they had presentations from 5 different school districts who are implementing 1:1. This included Jeff Dicks and John Dotson, superintendents from Newell-Fonda and Central City respectively, as well as Kirk Magill, the technology director for Cardinal, 3 districts in Iowa that have implemented within the past year. It also featured Dr. Milt Dougherty (superintendent, Little River, KS) and Katie Morrow (technology integration specialist, O'Neill, NE), which have been implementing for several years.

It was what you'd expect; a well-put-together presentation with good discussion. When Katie mentioned how O'Neill was a pilot school for Apple's Challenge Based Learning project, the room perked up. Coupled with Apple's Classroom of Tomorrow, Today, they have put together two concise frameworks for designing a "21st-century-infused" lesson. And most importantly in both, technology is not the main focus. It is the tool to move the curriculum forward.

I've been troubled in the past few weeks with the amount of criticism the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has received nationally. One of the central barbs is the backing of technology corporations behind the movement--Apple and Microsoft being two prominent ones. The thinking is the movement loses its legitimacy because of corporate sponsorship, much the same as the supposed "grass-roots" tea parties.

What troubles me is that, it is apparent to me that Apple has a lot to offer education, despite the reality that they stand to profit off the arrangement. Barry and Brent know a lot about how to use computers in schools; let's not minimize that. And, it is a partnership. They know that excellent instruction with technology leads to customer satisfaction, and therefore more computers purchased.

Let me suffice it this way. Apple understands how to implement the Iowa Core better than many school districts do, and actually offer the state quite a bit to help schools get there. Blasphemous? In bed with corporate influences? Whatever. I have our schools' best interests in mind. There were many superintendents in that room that agreed with me. Jeff and John being two of them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Facebook Squatting and other thoughts from ISPRA

Yesterday, I presented at the spring conference for the Iowa School Public Relations Association on using web 2.0 tools to enhance public relations in school districts. A couple of interesting perspectives came out.

First, I was surprised to see, out of the 3 applications that I demonstrated (Blogs, Facebook, and Twitter), Facebook was the application that people were interested in coming into the presentation. In fact, Facebook was the application they were eager to start using (maybe just as soon as I told them it was okay to). And when I mentioned the Salem-Keizer public schools and their use of Facebook to help procure support for a bond issue, I swear I could see the salivation.

To better summarize, blogs were passe, and Twitter was yet undiscovered. But the people in the room were currently engaged in discussions trying to convince their board to create a Facebook Page. Which, given the lack of blogging by school district officials that is out there, it makes me wonder. Blogging perhaps isn't flashy enough? Not reaching the schools publics? Maybe blogging was a technology with so much promise and potential and little that came out of it. And this, of course, is troubling, given that I think all the web 2.0 tools have so much promise and potential.

Second, when showing the audience which local districts were using Facebook, there were some surprised audience members. Some who found out for the first time that they had a Facebook account. One that they didn't create.

This highlights the need for Facebook Squatting, the process where you reserve a Facebook Page even if you have no intentions of using it, because of the fear someone else will take it surreptitiously. The presentation changed course mid-stream (it felt like one of my language arts classes from years past) to a discussion about protecting your digital brand.

And, this is where the panic set in. How do we peruse the entirety of the internet, including Facebook, Youtube, Flickr, and all the smaller networking tools, searching for imposters, vandalism, name-mudding? RSS and mashups are only part of the solution, it still takes a lot of manpower. It was a moment to illustrate the speedy world; people went in with the mindset that they maybe should start learning about some web 2.0 tools to better communicate, and left understanding they had to know about the tools just to protect the district. Once again, it isn't an option for schools to change on their timetable; schools are being forced to change by the realities of the world around them.

Third, despite the topic being jammed into "penalty time" (the presentation went 10 minutes over), Twitter was the eye opener. This was not surprising; I still feel this is the most underutilized communication tool out there for schools. There was general consensus among the group--they liked the potential of Twitter better than Facebook. It allowed for "one-way following". It takes less time to set up and can easily fit within the workflow. It is lightweight enough a technology to be perfect for schools. And the potential for vandalism and libel on the school's account is nil.

More to come from this topic...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Iowa DE on Twitter

Well, not quite the DE, but very close. Elaine Watkins-Miller, who is a communications consultant for the DE, has been twittering for a couple months and gives good updates on what's happening in education and the department (with links). Definitely worth the follow.

I'm interested in the meta-analysis as well. Elaine has a personal account, so technically she isn't "speaking for" the DE. But she still is using Twitter to get out in front of the message. This is a good message for school districts; use the tools out there to get ahead of the message. Whether to go with a personal account or an "agency" account (which are different in name only), is a worthwhile discussion. I'll be leading a discussion on this topic during tomorrow's Iowa School Public Relations Association conference.

She is ElaineWM on Twitter.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Disappearance of Playtime

I recently read Transform Education's post on time allocated in the elementary grades. And, my first thought was to add this to the pile. The blogosphere seems to be awash with stories on the lack of science instruction in elementary, the lack of arts in the elementary, the lack of physical education in the elementary, and the lack of everything else. And before you think it all goes to reading and math, you get plenty of articles on how we are behind the rest of the world in those areas.

Where do these minutes go? It can't be lunch; my kids have learned over the years to eat less for lunch because they only have about 12 minutes to get their food and snarf it down.

And, I'm not sure adding more days to the week, a la Duncan, is the answer either. I'd like some time to be with my family.

This, of course, is the byproduct of no prioritization and this false belief that we can do everything well. Districts have picked up Everyday Math, a solid math program to be sure, but one that demands up to 2 hours of math instruction per day at the elementary grades. Are districts foolish enough to believe they can pick up that type of commitment without dropping other items, or dishonest enough to themselves not to admit it?

With so many initiatives out there, the mark of a good administrator is one who gathers her staff internally and her community externally and says, "We can add this, but it will be at the cost of something else in both quality and time. Now we need to prioritize."

Which, brings up my second thought, you can see how playtime gets poached first, especially in schools where there isn't much communication with parents. There are no advocates for it.

From the article:

The report summarizes recent studies and reports showing long-term gains from play and focused, playful learning in early education. It also critiques kindergarten standards, scripted teaching, and standardized testing and makes recommendations for change.

David Elkind, author of The Power of Play, calls the research findings "heartbreaking." In a foreword to the report, Elkind writes, "We have had a politically and commercially driven effort to make kindergarten a one-size-smaller first grade. Why in the world are we trying to teach the elementary curriculum at the early childhood level?"

In a solely outcome-based educational environment, such as the NCLB area of accountability that we are in now, terms like "playtime", "student discovery", and "educating the whole child" are derided. Which is why we must consider the merits of at-least part-time curiosity-based education. I see the effects more and more when kids in my community are unable to come up with spontaneous activities and role-playing during their play time. They need scripted activities and games with structured narratives, like video games and teacher-organized recess games, in order to have fun. Is the ability to play "core knowledge" and a "21st century skill" (do we need to label it in order to preserve it)?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Around the Blogosphere - 4/11

Quickly around the blogosphere-

• Everyone should have a school law blog in their reader. The one I follow is the Edjurist by University of Kentucky professors Justin Bathon and Scott Bauries, where they recently have looked into the merit (or lack thereof) of "time-out rooms", as well as the protection of internet speech. Their most recent post is a question about backchannel conversations during school board meetings. Backchanneling is using Twitter or other tools to carry a conversation (or even just broadcast something) over the internet during an event. This is the term for the process I mentioned when looking at Twittering during student presentations. Bathon mentions that while this has great potential for information dissemination (not to mention democracy), it might be interesting if the school board meetings don't hold close to FERPA regulations. In other words, have some discretion if specific student information is discussed in the open.

• We in Iowa are insulated from an ongoing debate that has reached intensity. While we discuss the issues of whether to reform, the debate nationally is centering on how to reform. E.D. Hirsch, proponent of the "core knowledge" approach to standardizing curriculum, has an op-ed piece in the New York Times this week defending the validity and merit of standardized "bubble-filling" test, arguing that the main problem is the passages in those tests are arbitrary, and should rather be linked to the required reading of the curriculum. This touched off quite the debate with rebuttals, which led to rebuttals, which led to rebuttals.

• Hirsch didn't spark as much conversation as Arne Duncan did with his wistfulness for the 6-day, 11-month school calendar. And most of the conversation was shock and disbelief. The irony is we were just looking at a 4-day week for energy efficiency, and now the conversation is taken dramatically the other way. Seems like the roughly $500 million/yr. we would need to give every 3rd-12th grader a netbook computer would be much easier and much more likely to transform education than the trillion dollars/yr. we would need to extend each teacher and educational employee to a 275-day contract, but what do I know? I don't work for the government, I have to follow a budget...

• And finally, Matt Townsley touches on the question about student information systems and formative assessment I mentioned yesterday. Excellent example of how to do this, with screen shots from his SIS. There was discussion at the Iowa Core meeting that Anamosa High School was also pioneering in this field.

The broader discussion of course, is of the merits of traditional grading. I encourage schools to have the conversation about why we grade, and what the purpose of assessment really is. And, discuss if there is a place for standards-based reporting structures (or the tamer cousin, "standards-referenced" reporting structures). You know my thoughts.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Assessment for Learning and Student Information Systems

Interesting question that was discussed in an Iowa Core conversation.

How will our emphasis on student information systems in our school districts mesh with Assessment for Learning (1 of the 5 characteristics of effective instruction identified in the Core)?

To break that down a bit, when we moved to online accessible grades through our student information system (JMC) five years ago, it was the greatest thing for parents. Literally. The community survey, the parental committee at the site visit, SIAC, every chance for community input, they loved being able to access grades online.

Some took it to extremes of course, taking away their child's privileges for the weekend on the basis of what the Friday's grades were. And of course, each teacher was expected to turn in two grades a week because of this feedback. But generally, the teachers felt it was a good thing, since parents were getting on their kids' case early and often. And if the teacher and the parent is happy, the principal is ecstatic.

Problem is, grading is counter-productive in assessment for learning. There are stages to the process that should never be graded, such as rough drafts or trial runs on experiments. Students are encouraged to give critical self- and peer-feedback to improve learning. That's not going to happen if there is a grade hanging over it. The work of Popham, Heritage, and Wiliam all suggest that grading should be de-emphasized for more standards-based reporting.

This becomes an interesting quandary for schools to navigate.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Paperless at Inservice

Going paperless isn't just for the classroom; there are many unnecessary reams lost during professional development inservices as well.

The intricacies of this are interesting. It's as though we need paper because "we never know when we'll need this information again", and then it fills up our impossible-to-quickly-access file cabinets, never to be seen again. Or, because "we need paper to jot notes on". And then 80% of the people throw away the sheet at the end of the presentation anyways.

I've done away with the one-sheet outline of the words I say during my presentation, and I never did go to the ultimate waste, the power-point slides printed out, with room for notes. Instead, I give my viewers three links. One, the link of my presentation at Two, the link of my Delicious resources for the presentation. And three, my email.

For example, during my IAAE presentation, I gave them this Delicious link, which has in it all the resources I used for the "efficacy of online learning" research I conducted. And, below is the presentation, which is available at Slideshare.

For those that haven't used it, Slideshare is a very easy-to-use program. Create a free account, and then click a button to upload your Power Point, Open Office, or Keynote presentation. To get the full effect (with transitions), you can make the presentation available for download (you'll see I still need to work on my web-safe fonts in my presentation). Overall, this tool is excellent for teachers when students miss class the day of a presentation.

And, there's this thought from Will Richardson:

At the end of a presentation a few days ago with a couple of hundred pen and paper note taking attendees (and the odd laptop user sprinkled here and there) I answered a question about “What do we do now?” by saying “Well, first off, it’s a shame that the collective experience of the people in this room is about to walk off in two hundred different directions without any way to share and reflect on the thinking they’ve been doing all day. Next year, no paper.”

Very well said. Is the point of presentations to be the end-all document, or to facilitate future discussion? I know what the Iowa Professional Development Model would say.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Twitter from the District Office

Broward (FL) School District, the 6th largest in the nation, has been using Twitter for public communication for about a month now. Because Twitter is being access by more and more people, and the ease by which it is to put out info (they can publish several tweets a minute), they found it an ideal platform. They join Anchorage (AK) and Racine (WI) as large districts just joining Twitter this month.

What we're seeing here is the 2nd shift in public relations for school districts, just now catching up with the marketing techniques of other businesses. There was a time when communication was handled through mailed newsletters or notes sent home with the kids. In addition to being unreliable and costly, that form of communication wasn't "on-demand", as people couldn't find out an answer when they thought of the question (hey, what is on the lunch menu).

The first shift in public relations moved to the web-based information, tied in with student-information systems. Parents could access grades when they needed (such as, in the heated argument with their child about whether they have all their work turned in). Calendar information and activity information could be pulled up anytime.

But now, school districts are seeing the web as a method for active promotion. They don't need to wait for parents to visit their site; they can push out information in the form of RSS feeds, blog posts, and tweets. And that information is up-to-the-minute with all of our mobile access, and for the most part, free. Reminders, changes in schedules, breaking news, weather information, all are done well with Twitter. And, with the shorter news cycles of today, when disaster strikes, it allows schools to be out in front of the message.

Monday, April 6, 2009

21st Century Skill: Being Empathetic

Teaching is both a science and an art. We have traditionally neglected the science of teaching by underutilized student data to experiment with classroom instruction, seeing what works and what doesn't. But recently, we've swung the other way and neglected the art of teaching. Everything has come down to tests. Simply put, there are some absolutely critical skills for student development that cannot be quantified.

Boiling down student success to student achievement has its effects. It creates a resume more than a student. And in a similar vein, boiling down student success to "attributes that help you in the future workplace" is just as bad. There is more to life we are preparing students for than being a skilled worker.

Nowhere, I believe, is all of this more true than the skill of being empathetic. Todd Whitaker, who starts his books by mentioning he draws his conclusions not by standardized research data, identifies one of the top attributes of the most effective principals and teachers is that they "make it cool to care". They mold their school's culture to one where students help others pick up their dropped books and lend a hand when others are struggling with homework. The students feel bad when other students feel rejected. They work to make sure there are no outgroups.

From his "What Great Teachers Do Differently":

One year the junior high school where I was principal decided to adopt a partner school--a preschool whose students had multiple disabilities. I was very proud of our students. They were pen pals to the youngsters, sent them cards on their birthdays, and hosted monthly theme parties

As the holiday season approached, our students decided to do something special, to raise money to buy each one a hat, mittens, and a sweatshirt with our school logo. The students came up with the idea of holding a half-hour carnival during advisory time each morning for one week. Each class contributed. Students in art classes made holiday cards for the preschoolers. Home Economics baked cookies. The band played, the choir sang, the drama students did holiday skits. I even chose a student to wear my personal Santa Calus suit. We caught the entire party on video; our students comfortably and fearlessly holding and entertaining the preschoolers; excited children opening their presents. It was something special.

Two days later, as part of our traditional all-school holidaty assembly, we played the tape of the party. Everyone got to see the love and joy that we brought into these youngsters' lives. Tears came easiliy when our students saw the video of these very challenged children hugging their classmates. By the time the tape ended, there were few dry eyes in the auditorium. And this was a group of junior high students! Then, the curtains opened on stage. There were all our very special preschool friends, in their matching sweatshirts, singing carols to us. No one in that room will ever forget it. You see, that is school.

We didn't have any fights in school the rest of the week; no one was even referred to the office. And we never had a problem with students teasing any of their own peers with special needs who attended our junior high. Once it becomes sool to care, there are no limits to what can be accomplished.

Isn't this what we want from our students? The most skilled student in the world is not a contributing member of society if they cannot empathize for others. The ability to think of others' feelings, thoughts, and well-being is essential for being a teammate at work, a good neighbor, a contributing citizen, and perhaps most importantly, a caring family member. Our inability to empathize has made a millionaire out of Dr. Phil, and puts many of our relationships at risk. And, don't schools have a role in developing this? Any educator can tell you about scenes they have witnessed that seem to come straight from the movie Mean Girls. If a school is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem.

At Grinnell High School, we took part in a drive entitled "Trick or Treat So Kids Can Eat", which asked students to bring in food items. We were very successful at raising food (2nd in the nation)... perhaps it was due to the obligatory pizza party that went to the home room that brought in the most. I hope not. I hope it was because the students cared, that it made them feel valuable to see how they could help others.

That, of course, is the problem. How do you help students see the impact their empathy has? Like Whitaker was able to do for his school. This is where a good leader will take the bare-bones blueprint of the Iowa Core (which calls for adding relevance to one's curriculum) and will put some serious meat on it. They will find ways within their community to take their essential skills and apply them to better others. They will create the opportunities. And, they will give students the opportunities to reflect on their work, to see its impact.

I will now pull out my soapbox. I believe that the primary way to develop empathy is when good teachers and administrators develop a culture that promotes it. But a secondary way that I feel is sorely lacking is in curriculum. And, I believe one of the weaknesses of the Iowa Core is that it doesn't prescribe an empathetic curriculum, per se.

How do we learn to think about others? Through curriculum such as philosophy, drama, and psychology. Humanities. And even religion. None of which are emphasized by Iowa's public schools... at the most, they are often an elective available only to seniors.

I don't think this is coincidental. Our curriculum is, by and large, self-centered. When students do math, reading, writing, and science, they are exploring their understanding of those contents. They are working with their own skills. They don't focus on others... not in itself a bad thing. But a truly 21st century curriculum allows opportunities for students to think from other perspectives. This should give us pause when considering the role of these marginalized curricular areas.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Heartland Curriculum Network 4/3 - Norwalk's Moodle

We experimented with a new format at yesterday's curriculum network meeting for our area's schools, allowing more breakout sessions. I facilitated the session that featured Norwalk Community School District highlighting their innovative use of Moodle.

Mark Crady (8-9 principal and curriculum director) led the discussion, and was joined by the district technology director Tim Geyer, as well as Jodi Irlmeier and Greg Gardner, two lead teachers for their initiative. Norwalk is in their first year of full implementation at the 6th thru 9th grade level, and next year the high school will be implementing as well. Each teacher uses the Moodle platform to, at a minimum, post course syllabi, worksheets, and other handouts, and maintain a calendar of events that students and parents can check. However, both Greg and Jodi showed several other applications of Moodle into the classroom, including a demonstration of the online quiz module Moodle offers.

Some of the highlights from their presenation:

  • It was mentioned several times they have already seen student achievement gains. Some of that is better grades, which can result from better organization for students via Moodle. However, the sense from the Norwalk team was that their standardized test data are beginning to reflect the benefits Moodle brings to their curriculum.
  • Mark became an advocate when he "first saw the power to change instruction." Moodle was optimal for them because it promotes a constructivist pedagogy. They liked the flexibility it offers students; students were able to log-in and work with groups during separate study hall times and at home without losing productivity time.
  • The plan for year one of implementation was to have teachers use Moodle as a repository. Year two's plan is to use Moodle to deliver content, using the lesson and workshop modules.
  • Norwalk has been very deliberate about the roll-out process. They initially supported teachers with a tech cadre to get the early adopters started on it the previous year, and then have continued the support with "Moodle Mondays", where those lead teachers serve as support for other teachers in Moodle development. Each member of the team mentioned "Moodle Mondays" was critical to their success.
  • They further supported teachers with purchasing the book Using Moodle by Jason Cole. (Tim seemed a bit distressed when I mentioned that the book was now available as a free download... I too am out the money).
  • They have tied the Moodle directory into their Active Directory and Open Directory (their authentication systems to get onto their computer network), allowing for a simple system.
  • They would like to tie their Infinite Campus directory into Moodle so that a parent's login information can be used in Moodle as well, but this is not as easy. For the meantime, parents can login and check assignments and handouts in the Moodle course, but will log in separately to check grade in Infinite Campus.
  • On that note, the gradebooks are not tied together either. Most teachers do not use the Moodle gradebook since parents cannot check it, but rather take the scores gathered from assignments and manually enter them into Infinite Campus.
  • Mark mentioned they have had great parental buy-in. Parents love the communication and the online access to retrieve files, as well as the ability to assure that students are working on and turning in homework (they can watch over the student's shoulder if need be).
  • One key factor for Norwalk, they found that 92% of their families had internet use at home. While they have made access available at school and the public library for those who don't, that small percentage of students without access has definitely helped deployment.
  • Just like all technology, there are pros and cons they have found. They are very excited about the free plug-in Hot Potatoes, which offers a more robust quiz program. Greg gave us a demonstration of a quiz that he gives, arguing that it allows student the ability to check their work, re-take any number of times that he sets, and get immediate feedback. Students don't "throw their quiz away immediately like a paper quiz."
  • They did not like the gradebook or the survey tool ("absolute garbage" Tim mentioned). And, they immediately turned off the chatting feature. Dialogue is better served in the courses' forums.

Norwalk has been helped immensely by Pella Community School District (which has been implementing Moodle as a supplement for their curriculum for several years) and their technology advisor Eric Pingel. In addition to Pella and Norwalk, several other districts locally are either using Moodle (West Des Moines, Ankeny) or actively looking into it (Waukee, Johnston, Gilbert).

One suggestion made by Tim that has gained some inital interest is to develop a local Moodle users group, one that could share ideas, resources, even possible curriculum that would involve local schools that are interested. Contact me if you are interested in taking part in a potential users group.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Better Data Needed

Our neighbors to the north were in the news, with some harsh (but very thought-provoking) criticism of NCLB. From Minnesota 2020:

Last fall, the prestigious publication Education Week hosted an on-line chat about the federal No Child Left Behind law. One of the panelists was David Figlio, a professor at Northwestern University and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Ellen Solek of East Haddam, Conn., asked if Figlio was aware “of any current research that has, or is being conducted that determines correlation (if any) between K-12 student test scores, accountability, and future success in the workplace?”

This is a magnificent question because it goes to the heart of NCLB and how it relates to every Minnesotan. The question is simple: What difference does NCLB make?

Figlio doesn’t really have an answer. First, he says this: “It’s too early to know about the effects of accountability on workplace success.” Then he says “there have been a number of studies that have linked K-12 test scores to labor market outcomes as adults,” but then adds “these papers use data that are decades old, however.”

Minnesota 2020 is asking the right question... what difference does NCLB make? Sure, it gives you objective data to draw conclusions from, but are they the data we need? In simple words, don't we need authentic standardized assessment?

Which brings me back to the comment Shawne Berrian left on a post of mine several weeks ago.

Here is the research we need to conduct. Instead of debating about what will bring about success, let's go find successful people. Use the basis of peer nominations about who is the best in your profession. And choose all professions... mechanics, auctioneers, librarians, soldiers, not just doctors and engineers. Then, choose people who aren't successful in those professions.

Then test them. Give them standardized content-specific tests, such as the Iowa Test of Educational Development. Then give them a standardized assessment which measures the 21st century skills (PISA). And, look at the correlation.

This is what Wiggins and McTighe did. And, they found what made the difference were the 21st century skills, not the content skills.

This is a very interesting point. We always define best practice based on what elicits improvements in student achievement scores, but what if this has stunted other practices that "didn't bring about ITED gains" that would actually help out students be successful? There is a movement towards starting with the end goal in education and designing backwards... maybe we didn't go far enough to start the design process.

(h/t to Education Futures for the link)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

21st Century Skills before the 20th Century Skills?

A comment from a teacher during a workshop I was facilitating with a school:

Why are we teaching the 21st century skills when students haven't learned the 20th century skills?

Now certainly, there's context to this quote; it's 8:00 in the morning, a required inservice, I see people madly filling out their tournament bracket sheets for the games start later that afternoon. And I know the instructor as well, someone that can give guff with a smile. But, strip away the context, and I feel this is a genuine question that many educators have.

So, I answered it.

First, we have to define what we mean by "21st century" and "20th century". 20th comes before 21st not because they are easier building blocks or because of chronological sequence (like Algebra 1 and 2). Many argue they are a misnomer anyways, because the skill sets they represent are both important today and yesteryear. We can call them "21st century skills" because while you could say people have always needed the ability to analyze, solve problems, and create, the need has never been more important and the pace more frenetic than now. It is a demarcation of emphasis, not chronology.

Second, much like what we need to do with "21st century skills", we need to define what we mean by "20th century skills". Reading? Yes. Math? Yes. Memorization? No. Filling-in-the-blank from the teacher-generated word bank? No.

Define it further (reading is too broad of a stroke). Decoding the meaning of words using clues in the context of the sentence. Yes. Being able to label terms as gerunds? No. Check me on this one if you'd like, but the only one in the room who knew what a gerund was was the two teachers who taught it and myself.

This is the intention of the Iowa Core, to better define what the "20th century" essential skills are. As schools, we need to look at our curriculum and have some critical conversations about what is essential. If it is essential, then absolutely teach it.

So to answer the original question, you first have to define 21st century and 20th century. Next you have to examine how well you teach those items.

Reading is an essential skill--everyone agrees with that. But what is effective reading instruction? Just having it done in language arts class? Many times, a non-language teacher might assume that they are teaching reading by giving the students a chapter in the book to read. You could give me some thread and a needle, but that doesn't mean I will learn cross-stitch.

In this case, the question seemed to imply that the students he had in class couldn't read up to his standard. If that's the case, absolutely teach them how to read.

But, don't refuse to develop 21st century skills at the same time.

I asked if the individual was a coach (he wasn't, just my luck). So, I asked who the head basketball coaches were (they were sitting together on the other side of the auditorium). So I asked them as a group "Do you teach the defensive position? The duck-billed follow through? How to run your offense? And, do you have a sequence of these things?" The answer, yes to all of them... you can't get to the fine details of the motion offense and the half-court trap defense without hitting the building blocks first.

So, then I asked, "Do you teach hustle? Awareness? Improvisation?" One coach who was very interested by this train of thought had a great answer. "Yes, we do, but it's different."

"How so?"

"Well, it isn't cut and dry. It isn't step-by-step teaching, but it's much more coaching. You see it, then you point it out and process it with the kids. Saying, you made an excellent move there that wasn't part of the offense... what did you see? Then the kid answers, and it makes everyone want to do it. And what hustle looks like to the post is different than the wing."

And another coach:

"Yeah, and we're never done teaching those things. Up until the last day, you are looking to work on those. And the first day as well."

Those are the "21st century skills" of basketball. And, that's what it should be in the classroom as well.

You work on things like creativity, analysis, and problem-identification on all days, at all points in the lesson, at all grades. You never stop. You coach them more so than you teach them. You find examples of them in the classroom, point them out, and have kids learn from each other. The skills look different in different situations. But they are absolutely vital to a child's success.

So the answer is, you don't teach 21st century skills before the 20th century. You teach them at the same time, infusing them together.

(By the way, they had me fill out a tournament bracket sheet. Now that's the sign of love for a professional development consultant. I belong!)