Thursday, October 28, 2010

What Constitutes Good Instruction?

As a Principal, one of my most important responsibilities is the evaluation of instruction.  In general, the observation process is quite arbitrary.  The feedback a teacher receives really depends on the training a particular administrator has received, District vision, and what books or research have been read.  
What I have tried to do is take a little bit of everything I have learned to provide my teachers with the best feedback possible in order to promote professional growth and increase student achievement.  In my mind there are no perfect lessons and there is always room for improvement no matter how great the teacher is.  The trick is being able to effectively identify those areas and engage the teacher in a constructive dialogue that results in improved practice.  Here is what I look for:
  • Clearly stated objectives as to what the students are expected to learn or do by the conclusion of the lesson.
  • Asking open and closed-ended questions during direct instruction in order to check for understanding, engage, and assess.  I like to see my teachers randomly call on students so that they don’t get lost during the course of a lesson.  An emphasis is also placed on the lecture being only 10-15 minutes if necessary.
  • A do-now or anticipatory set that motivates the learner, reviews prior learning, and makes connections to the new content being presented.  Students need to find meaning and relevancy in what they are learning or else they will be disengaged.
  • Interdisciplinary connections.
  • A variety of student-centered learning activities where students are afforded the opportunity to think critically, solve problems, work in cooperative groups, and create manifestations that demonstrate learning is taking place.  Students need to be actively involved in the learning process.
  • Informal and formal means of assessment in which the students have a clear indication of their performance in relation to expected learning outcomes.  Rubrics or scoring guides should accompany any activity that is to be graded.
  • The routine use of positive reinforcement to commend and praise students for taking risks, whether they are wrong or right. 
  • A stimulating learning environment that promotes inquiry with student work proudly displayed.  Tied to this are classroom management techniques that afford all students the opportunity to learn.
  • Effective technology integration.
  • Teacher enthusiasm.  If teachers aren’t enthusiastic about the lesson or content then how can they expect their students to be?
  • A closure activity that reinforces the objectives of the lesson.

By no means is this list inclusive of all the aspects of effective instruction.  However, I do feel that it provides me with a good base to effectively and objectively evaluate my teachers to help them grow professionally.  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Climate is Everything

This week has been extremely gratifying in terms of the instructional practices I either witnessed firsthand or heard about.  Coincidentally they are all coming out of my History Department.  Here is a quick rundown:

On Thursday, October 21, I observed Nicolette Perna’s American History 1 class where the lesson focused on the major patriots during the Revolutionary War.  After a few minutes of notes, the students were directed to get in their pre-selected groups and were broken up into pairs by Ms. Perna within each group.  Each pair received a folder containing the name of an important patriot (i.e. Benjamin Franklin), their biography, and a Facebook template.  The nature of the activity was for the students to create a Facebook page for their important Patriot as the students envisioned it would look if they were alive today. Prior to beginning this assignment, Ms. Perna modeled what she was looking for by showing the class an example of a Facebook page made for Abraham Lincoln.  She further explained that each page had to include biographical information, a list of other patriots who would be friends, and status updates of historical significance.  In addition to these requirements, students were given the flexibility to be as creative as they wanted to with the status updates.  One student in particular added a conversation between Thomas Jefferson and “The Situation” from the Jersey Shore (of course all required content information was included as well).  On a side note, Ms. Perna used Prezi on Monday to introduce students to words and images associated with the Olive Branch Petition.

While learning about Immigration in Rebecca Millan’s American History 2 class during the week of October 4, students created interactive Glogster posters.  The posters were developed to provide students with a better understanding of their family’s immigration to America as well as the overall immigration experience of the countries in which families emigrated.  Students worked diligently in the computer lab for three days and were then able to publish their projects online and present them in class.

Today I observed Joe Manzo in Modern World History where he was covering the Columbian Exchange.  After lecturing on the topic, he broke students up into cooperative, heterogeneous groups where they answered questions relating to the impact of the Columbian Exchange on Europe, Africa, and the Americas.  As a culminating activity, Mr. Manzo asked the students to take out their mobile devices and submit their questionnaire answers using Poll Everywhere.  In preparation for the activity he informed the students yesterday to bring their cell phones in (they were shocked). This was an extremely significant event as this represented the first time that a teacher and students used mobile devices in NMHS as a learning tool.  I observed each and every student thoroughly engaged in the activity as they observed real-time results appear on a large television screen.  Their excitement was contagious.  Wait, it gets better; when the activity ended Mr. Manzo moved on to his closure activity and every student turned off and then put away their cell phones without even being asked!

I am extremely proud of my teachers effectively integrating technology into their instruction to create an engaging learning environment.  All three of these teachers willingly attended the Tri-State Educational Technology Conference (TSETC) held at NMHS and learned about Prezi, Glogster, and Poll Everywhere for the first time.  A climate has been established here where teachers are provided with the tools, resources, support, and flexibility to take risks with technology in order to improve teaching and learning.  Teachers are not directed or mandated to do this, but instead motivated through effective modeling, meaningful events like TSETC, and a desire to change.  These success stories must be shared to alleviate fears and resistance to using educational technology in the classroom.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Facebook Top 20 Learning Applications

Check out this video for some great learning applications associated with Facebook.

Do you know of other learning applications?  If so list them here!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Field of Dreams

As I write this post I am sitting in the Des Moines airport waiting for my flight back to the East Coast.  I was fortunate to spend the last few days here in Iowa as a guest of Scott McLeod who founded and runs the C.A.S.T.L.E. program at Iowa State University.  The purpose of my trip here was to learn about the deployment, facilitation, and observable impact of 1:1 laptop programs in various Iowa school districts.  I have little experience in this area as I only know of a handful of districts in New Jersey that have these programs. 

On Wednesday when I arrived my head was filled with unclear expectations as to what my takeaways would be upon my return east.   Although I could envision some benefits of a 1:1 program in my school, I had no plans to pursue implementing one.  Little did I know that I would be leaving with a wealth of information that could have the potential to radically transform the learning culture at New Milford High School.  I also was unprepared for the amount of corn I would see virtually every minute of my journey through a state that really gets it from an educational standpoint. 

First a little history on 1:1 laptop programs in Iowa.  Last year approximately 17 Districts had deployed these programs in their schools.  That number has now grown to 51 this year (see this map).  Obviously the state of Iowa noticed something beneficial result from these programs as the number of 1:1 laptop schools tripled.   Here are my observations and thoughts after touring three schools (K-12, 7-12, K-6) located throughout central Iowa:
  • We need to prepare our students to be doers and creative thinkers who can compete with their peers globally for jobs that have yet to evolve.  Many schools across the country are not doing this and as a result our students are at a disadvantage.
  • A common message of change must be embraced by all stakeholders, especially Boards of Education and Central Office Administration, for 1:1 programs to be rolled out in schools.  Additionally, the community needs to speak up and ask schools to do things differently if Districts would rather not break from the status quo.  This last point was the driving force in one District we visited.
  • Students in schools with 1:1 programs don’t ask what they have to do to get the right answer as do those in other schools structured to teach to the test.  Instead, they are asking thought-provoking questions, challenging assumptions, making interdisciplinary connections, applying acquired knowledge, and are immersing themselves in authentic learning experiences.  These students are permitted to follow their passion, which results in the active pursuit of self-directed learning opportunities.
  • Teachers can easily and effectively differentiate content, projects, and assessments for students.  I observed a great example of this in a 6th grade class.  As students finished work on their vertebrate Keynote projects, they immediately began working on math or language arts content that was found on their teacher’s website. 
  • I observed students performing various tasks on the laptops that many teachers and administrators do not know how to do such as hyperlinking content, creating custom music using Garage Band for their presentations, constructing Wordles, using Paintbrush, and adding customized slide transitions.  The latter two, I don’t even know how to do on Keynote.  The significance of this is that students are then empowered to not only collaborate with each other, but to also teach the teacher.  This can only occur in learning environments where control is relinquished, as was the case in many classrooms we visited.
  • Many teachers seamlessly integrated technology and computer skills into their lessons through modeling and reinforcement.  In my opinion, this served to significantly enhance the curriculum as well as to refine and introduce advanced technology skills.
  • When asked whether or not parents embraced and accepted these programs, the uniform message was quite surprising.  Parents were initially fearful of the program (i.e. cost to fix or replace), but those fears soon subsided.  Each school then explained how the laptops were bringing families together outside of school.   Engagement in many homes increased as families began to use the laptops together.  I even heard about how some parents were annoyed that they couldn’t get their students to bed at a reasonable hour because they were constantly up late solving math problems on their laptops (this is a positive in my book).  Other positives associated with the 1:1 programs include increases in student engagement and attendance, as well as decreases in tardiness and discipline referrals.   You could see that the students thoroughly enjoyed coming to school and were not bored.  I found it particularly fascinating that in one elementary school they found that the students’ enhanced presentation skills acquired from class gave them the confidence to speak in front of large adult groups.  These same students Skype back into their classes when on vacation, sharing, with their peers, pictures and the history of the location they are visiting.
  • Recommendations: More professional development would go a long way in assisting the staff to effectively integrate the laptops in each school. Check out this post on Dangerously Irrelevant.

Each 1:1 school in Iowa represents a “Field of Dreams” to each and every student enrolled there.  The students are afforded the opportunity to follow their passion, be creative, collaborate, and become active participants in the learning process.  What struck me the most were the high levels of student engagement in classrooms where the tool was combined with a sound pedagogical foundation.  In all cases, students were being prepared for the future.  I leave Iowa motivated to provide my students with their own field of dreams.  Thank you Scott McLeod!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Today's Lesson: Facebook. Friend or enemy in the classroom?

Facebook, the premiere social networking site, is used by hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. While the site has become somewhat of a nuance for most teachers—they distract from valuable study and class time—some schools are embracing the social media site with welcoming arms. Not only are some schools incorporating Facebook into their lesson plans, but they are also tutoring students as young as 6-years-old on how to 'properly' use the site.

Yes, students are being tutored how to use Facebook.

This school year, teachers at Bluff Gunn Elementary, a school located in Iowa, decided to use Facebook in the hopes that they could create an interactive learning environment for their students—showing them the positive ways of using the site and the importance of a social networking— while squeezing a few spelling and grammar lessons in between.  While many may frown at the idea of fourth graders using Facebook in the classroom, teachers at Gunn argued that the site helps students reinforce information while simultaneously allowing parents to monitor what their child is learning in class.

How do they do this, exactly?

Upon the class' completion of the core curriculum, no matter what the subject, teachers will log on to Facebook and ask students to update the class profile page.  The trick is that students can only have updates pertaining to what was taught that day. Teachers require that students really synthesize the day's lesson and incorporate specific details it into the status update. The status is then collectively checked for sentence structure and spelling and grammar mistakes before the status is entered. In turn, parents who filled out a consent form allowing their child to participate in the classroom Facebook page can view the updates. This way, they can keep track of what their child is being taught in school. In addition to being able to view important announcements and assignment deadlines, they can also view classroom photos, videos, and other student- work, published only with the consent of the parent naturally.

First graders at Gunn Elementary also learn Facebook, however the grammar portion is geared more towards the fourth grade students.

While schools like Gunn are trying to get hip with times by incorporating networking sites like Facebook into their lesson plans, do you think that Facebook in the classroom—especially taught at such a young age—is a good idea?  While there is no concrete evidentiary support stating how young Facebook users tend to be, most typically start in middle school, not grade school.  So, do you think these schools are just trying to beat their students to the punch, meaning –the students will get a Facebook eventually, so teachers might as well inform them how not to abuse the site starting now?; or do you think these schools are in a sense forcing students to adopt these sites that they might have never wanted to use on their own?

This guest post is contributed by Olivia Coleman, who writes on topics of online colleges and universities.  She welcomes your comments at her email Id:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reform is Happening

On a crisp, sunny Saturday morning in October, approximately 400 passionate educators congregated at New Milford High School for the Tri-State Educational Technology Conference (TSETC).  The brainchild of Schoology and myself, we set out in mid-August to plan an unprecedented free conference that would provide educators of varying experience with practical strategies to successfully integrate technology in the classroom.  We didn’t know what to expect, but were committed to planning and delivering an event that would have a positive impact on all who attended.  Little did we know that by the end of the day, after countless hours of planning, that the conference would not only be a success, but would greatly exceed our expectations.

Around 9:10 AM I walked into my auditorium to kick off TSETC.  This was an incredibly emotional moment for me as I became so humbled to see the NMHS auditorium at capacity.  Particularly gratifying for me was to see so many stakeholders from my District present on a Saturday including teachers, administrators, central office personnel, parents, and Board of Education members.  During my brief statements I explained that the main objective of the conference was for participants to leave inspired and motivated to pursue innovative practices while becoming agents of change (thanks for capturing this in a quote Lisa).  The keynote then began and the conference was officially underway.

I didn’t see many sessions as I was running around like a lunatic.  Between popping into sessions I was setting up AVA equipment, moving extra chairs into rooms, printing out PD certificates, and exchanging business cards.  What I did hear though from educator after educator was how phenomenal the conference was. Conversations were taking place all over my school - in the hallways, Blogger’s Cafe, and in the cafeteria during lunch. The common theme of all of these informal discussions was the cultivation of student-centered learning opportunities.  Anyone that was following the #TSETC hashtag could feel the outside of the box thinking that was taking place in a little NJ town. Just check out these thoughts from Meg Wilson.

Here are just a few of the highlights:
  • Adam Bellow electrified the crowd with his presentation 10 Webtools to make your classroom rock!  I learned at TSETC that Adam runs a 100% free website called eduTecher that reviews and catalogs over 1,100 free web tools as well as offering short videos explaining how to use them in the classroom.  In the near future he will have free iPhone and Droid apps.  From now until November 25th, Adam is running a social media charity drive and when anyone clicks on this link he will donate a penny to charity.  Right after Thanksgiving he will donate all the money to the charity that his website audience (Twitter-folk, and Facebook friends) vote on. The idea is to show students (and everyone else too) that small things do make a difference and that by doing something small we can "Change the World".
  • New Milford High School alumnus Erica Hartman covered over 20 free tools that any teacher could easily use in the classroom.  As a Google Certified teacher, she appropriately organized her presentation by superbly using Google Sites. 
  • Karen Blumberg took fabulous notes on many of the presentations, which you can find here.  Additionally she facilitated a session on grassroots PD. Any highlights I missed can be found here.
  • Matt Ray provided updates on the conference and posted them to his blog.
  • Mary Beth Hertz facilitated a session where the attendees created their own presentation describing 21st Century learners.
  • Shelly Terrell Skyped in from Germany and dazzled educators on how to effectively extend learning beyond classroom walls. My students that were volunteering made it clear after her presentation that NMHS has to Skype more often.
  • EdSocialMedia and William Stites did a fabulous job running the the Blogger’s Cafe.  You can check out his session here. The Blogger's Cafe was definitely the place to be during the extended lunch break.
  • Mark Moran not only presented a comprehensive session on conducting better web research, but went out of his way to speak with educators the entire day to share his knowledge and expertise. The book marks were also a nice touch. 
  • I had met George Bengel at the NYSCATE Leadership Symposium this summer and personally reached out to him about presenting at TSETC.  He provided educators with a great deal of food for thought on using mobile technology for student-centered learning. 
  • Lisa Nielsen was absolutely fabulous.  I was fortunate to meet Lisa this past April at the 140 Characters Conference in NYC.  During her keynote she emphasized the need to take risks in the classroom and shared examples detailing the trials and tribulations of her journey to effectively integrate technology.  Read her post conference thoughts and discover how to think outside the ban.
  • The Virtual Learning Lab provided an engaging experience for all attendees as well as my students who volunteered to help out with the conference (they were awesome). They were blown away by the interactive learning experience shown off by Tequipment and wanted to "Glog" in class thanks to Glogster. Teachers from my District were really intrigued by the Schoology platform. The fact that Glogster and Dell traveled from MA and TX respectively to be a part of this experience was so exciting.
  • The Record did this story, which appeared in the paper today.
  • Google Doc of resources from TSETC courtesy of Chuck Poole.
  • Listen to my entire session on Leading With Social Media here.
We are currently experiencing a critical time in the field of education. First there were the budget cuts followed by what now seems like relentless attacks on teachers and administrators. The accountability movement being heralded by so-called reformers is being embraced by more and more stakeholders across the country. Throwing gasoline on the fire has been the documentary "Waiting for Superman" and the sham called Education Nation (which, by the way, had no respected educators present at the Summit because they were not invited). The systems that they are proposing, such as those based on merit or performance pay, will ultimately create schools that are stagnant, teach to the test, and crush any desire for innovative practices.

Reform is happening. It is happening at free conferences like TSETC where passionate educators come together on a Saturday for a full day of learning about practical strategies and sharing ideas to engage all learners in order to improve achievement. It is happening virtually in the form of Personal Learning Networks through discussion, resource sharing, and collaboration through social networking sites like Twitter and The Educator's PLN. What I learned on Saturday in my conversations with educators from many different districts is that we need to work together, learn from each other, and cultivate learning environments that are innovative, supportive, embrace risk-taking, and, most importantly, put the students first. This is the kind of real reform of which I want to be a part.