Friday, November 30, 2012

A Blueprint Worth Following

As part of the PDK International Emerging Leader Award, I had the opportunity to attend an amazing professional development experience in Washington DC.  During the first session there was a presentation on the Finnish Education System and the characteristics that make is the most successful system in the world in terms of student achievement.  

Here are some aspects that called out to me:

  • Culture of trust and moral/social responsibility.
  • No inspections or continuous monitoring by state/federal agencies.
  • No standardized tests until the 12th grade.
  • A country that truly values educators so much so that they are on par with doctors and lawyers. Everyone aspires to be a teacher, which translates into the best students pursuing this as a career.
  • All students attend higher education for FREE.
  • All teachers have a Master's Degree.
  • All administrators also teach.
  • Free lunch for all students.
  • The basic education curriculum is only 128 pages.
  • Free market for publishing, which means teacher has total autonomy as to the resources he/she wants to use including textbooks.
So why does the US Department of Education not take any cues from the Finnish blueprint for success?  Seems like we are doing the exact opposite.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Creativity and Why it Matters

A recent U.S. study, Creativity and Education: Why it Matters, sheds new light on the role of creativity in career success and the growing belief that creativity is not just a personality trait, but a learned skill. A summary of some of the key findings are listed below:

Image credit:
  • 85% percent of professionals agree creative thinking is critical for their career success, and 68% of respondents believe creativity is a skill that can be learned.
  • Nearly three-quarters (71%) of poll respondents say creative thinking should be “taught as a class – like math or science.” 
  • Many more believe creativity is important to their career now (78%) than they thought in college (57%).
  • The majority (82%) wish they had more exposure to creative thinking as students.

Check out this infographic on the value of creativity created by Adobe.  Be sure to also check out the recent Adobe press release emphasizing why creativity should be taught as a course in schools.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Use of Blogging to Address the Common Core

First year New Milford High School teacher Mrs. Westbrook has been tackling the Common Core in an engaging and innovative fashion.  One major instructional shift required by the Common Core Curriculum Standards is the increased emphasis on the use of informational texts.  As students engage nonfiction, they learn to grapple with complex ideas and arguments and use those ideas in forming their own opinions.  

One strategy for helping students meet these demands is the use of blogging to scaffold challenging texts and to encourage students to consider evidence and the perspective of others.  In the study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Mrs. Westbrook’s class discussions have centered on the playwright’s purpose – a purpose the famous author described in a 2002 interview we use as our informational text for the lesson.  In the interview, the author presents a complex argument that links the events in the play to events in modern society.  

The blog assignment requires students to consider his argument, find evidence to support his argument in the play, and to evaluate the quality of his argument using their own observations.  At the same time, the assignment provides a powerful learning tool.  On the blog, students can access the informational text by replaying the interview. In addition, they can read salient quotes from the author to reinforce their comprehension.  Finally, they can use teacher-generated questions to guide them in crafting a thesis-driven response to the author’s argument.  

Once students have posted their responses, she can comment and question them to raise the level of student discourse, provide personalized writing instruction, and teach to their misconceptions.  Here is a screen shot of the task/question:

Here is a screen shot of a student response with a response meant to deepen and sharpen his concept while addressing a misconception:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Video as a Tool to Understand CCSS Mathematical Practices

Success at the Core is a free resource available to teachers and leaders to assist in the successful implementation of the Common Core Standards.  All materials are designed to complement—not supplant—existing school improvement initiatives. Video, print, and online materials can be selected by leadership teams or teachers, and tailored to fit their needs.  One of the powerful aspects of Success at the Core is the use of video to to illustrated effective pedagogical techniques in mathematics.  The following piece by Deb Gribskov provides a great example of how video can aid teachers in their math instruction.

They were 100 strong – an audience of teachers sitting at cafeteria tables, waiting. They had come here at 4:00 pm, after a long day, to learn about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Mathematics. The evening’s session was to focus on mathematical Practice #1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
I was part of a group of teacher leaders and coaches from two neighboring school districts in Washington state who’d come together to lead this session. We hoped to create a critical mass of thought and effort to promote understanding of the CCSS in our districts, with a first-year emphasis on the mathematical practices. Our job that night was to help the assembled teachers understand Practice #1; gain insight into how to intentionally address it in their classrooms; and stay engaged and awake enough to want to come back for focus sessions on the remaining seven practices! I was the “opening act.”
As an instructional coach, I hear time and again: “Show me what it looks like. Let me see it, so I can understand it.” Tonight, I answered that request, specifically focusing on visual examples of perseverance. I began the session with a video of an elementary-school child working through a word problem. The video documented the student struggling with the problem – for almost two agonizing minutes. When he finally came up with his answer (the correct one, I might add), our teachers clapped and breathed an audible sigh of relief.
When I asked the teachers to reflect on why the student succeeded, the two most common answers were: “The teacher gave him the time he needed,” and “The teacher didn’t help him.” Indeed, the video drove home the teacher’s patience. As I watched it – and reflected on the audience’s responses – I thought about how often I’ve come to the aid of a struggling student. In those moments, I often find myself asking whether I’m actually keeping that student from developing the perseverance needed to solve the problem. Clearly, I’m not alone.
After this discussion, we watched a TED talk by Dan Meyer, who talked about why many students struggle with mathematics and don’t persevere. He addressed students who don’t and won’t engage, and how to change the way we present problems to change the paradigm for their learning. In the video, Meyer states, “Students need to decide, ‘All right, well, does the height matter? Does the side of it matter? Does the color of the valve matter? What matters here?’ — such an underrepresented question in math curricula.” Teaching students to think about problems, rather than spoon feeding them the answers, will also teach them to stick with it. This is critical in addressing this part the CCSS.  When I watch this video, I am inspired to think deeply about my own curriculum – not the texts I use but the standards I’m helping students learn.  Meyer models how to create the questions and tasks that really help students grow and learn.

As the second video faded to black, the light bulbs came on over the teachers’ heads. The nodding heads around the room confirmed that the videos drove home the idea of persistence and empowerment in ways that discussion alone could not. With these videos, the stage had been set for my CCSS group of 100. The teachers were now ready to move on to “grade band” sessions. For the remainder of the evening, they focused specific, grade-level skills that would help them intentionally address CCSS mathematical Practice #1 in their classrooms. In these break-out sessions, the teacher leaders asked probing questions and provided concrete examples to help teachers really grasp the essence of this practice.
Now, I’m busy planning next month’s session, which will focus on CCSS mathematical Practice #2: Reason abstractly and quantitatively. Again, I’ll kick off the session with a video to illustrate the practice. This time, I’m planning to use aSuccess at the Core video, “Challenging Students to Discover Pythagoras.” And we’ll examine and discuss quantitative and abstract reasoning.

Over this entire school year, my colleagues and I will repeat this coaching process again and again, until we’ve covered all eight mathematical practices. Each time, we’ll be sure to include video examples to answer their persistent request: “Show me what it looks like. Let me see it so I can understand it.” I can think of no more effective way to bring this rich discussion about CCSS to life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What is the True Value of Technology?

Cross posted at the Huffington Post.

This past month my family and I suffered a devastating loss as my grandmother passed away only a few weeks after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  Abiding by her wishes not to inconvenience anyone, my parents arranged for friends and family to call an hour prior to the funeral, which was then followed by a short service.  Because the funeral was held just days after her death, her two sisters were not able to physically attend the service in NJ.  One of my great aunts resides in rural Arkansas while the other lives in Texas. 

My wife's family was heartbroken that they were not able to attend the service, as were both of my great aunts.  The night before the service we called the funeral home to see if they had the capability of streaming the service over the Internet.  This would have enabled family that could not be there to view the service.  Unfortunately, we were informed that although the funeral home was currently working on setting up this service it would not be operational in time for us to use it.  Even after receiving this news, I still took my Mac Book Pro with me to the funeral home.  At this time I still do not know why, considering I was told that there was no Internet connection available.

I arrived early the morning of the service and on a wing and a prayer I booted up my computer to find that there was a strong WiFi signal that I could utilize.  At this point, I created a free Ustream account as I had heard about this service through many of the connected educators that I communicate with on a regular basis.  After creating this free account, my brother contacted my great aunt in Arkansas and we tested out the live stream.  To our surprise, it worked!  I then proceeded to stream my grandmother’s funeral service live to her sister in Arkansas.  She was able to watch the entire service uninterrupted.  Afterwards she sent me an email that brought me to tears as she expressed the priceless moment that I was able to provide her.  A few days later my grandmother’s other sister watched the archived recording of the service.  None of this would have been possible without technology.

That night, I returned home as I was hosting the third annual Edscape Conference at my school.  It was a bittersweet moment for me as I was still grieving the loss of my grandmother, but excited to welcome 350 educators from ten states and Canada to my school.  Using the knowledge I gained the day before, I was determined to try to establish a live feed of the keynote address as well as some of the sessions.  Not only was I able to use Ustream to share the keynote address with the world, but I was also able to establish a feed presented by some educators who traveled to NJ from Canada so that their superintendent could watch from their province.  Again, something like this would not have been possible without technology.

I have shared both of these stories to demonstrate the potential that technology has in re-shaping school cultures and how we learn.  Technology is not just a shiny tool that can increase engagement, but a conduit to endless possibilities that can enhance every facet of what we do in education.  It is not a frivolous expense that is not worth the investment that many make it out to be.  As I demonstrated above, the inherent power of a laptop, Internet connection, webcam, and a free streaming service were able to touch the lives of people a thousand miles away and leave a lasting impact.  Imagine what it can do for schools and educators looking to enrich the curriculum while making learning more relevant and meaningful for students? I see technology as a needed resource in education that can break down the walls of traditional school structures while creating new opportunities to learn. 

Technology can engage, connect, empower, and enhance teaching, how educators learn, the work done by schools, and stakeholder relations.  The driving question we should be asking is how well do we use the technology that is available to us to improve what we do instead of why should we use it to improve what we do.  Even in schools that might not have as many technology resources, time and energy should be spent figuring out how to maximize what is available instead of making endless excuses for not moving forward.

Technology is here to stay, although there is never a shortage of naysayers who question its value.  Its value rests in how we decide to use it effectively to positively impact the lives of our students, achieve learning goals, communicate with stakeholders, share best practices, and connect like never before.  The results and impact will speak for itself in ways that a standardized test never can.  Is it a silver bullet or cure for education in general? Will it eventually replace teachers? Of course not, but one should think twice before claiming that it is not worth the investment as the results of effective integration speaks for itself.  Just ask the students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders who witness this on a regular basis.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NJED Disaster Relief: Educators Helping other Educators

Original post can be found at Teachercast.

Dear Friends, 

The last few days have seen some of the most heartbreaking photos and videos coming out of the state of New Jersey. Even days after the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, over 1 million New Jersey residents are still without running water or power. 

Today, we are announcing, along with other great educators across the state the #NJED Hurricane Sandy Supply Relief program.

This program demonstrates the positive power of Social Media and it’s effectiveness in helping those during their time of need.  School Districts affected by Sandy can simply fill out the form on the website listing supplies they need in order to get back on their feet.  School Districts, business, or individuals looking to donate can contact those in need directly to provide assistance.

I am writing to you to ask for two things: 

1. Would you please help us and spread the word of this event by linking our #NJED Badge to your website or blog 

2. Please consider helping us promote this cause on your various social media channels.

Thank you for your time and consideration for this great cause.

We are also looking into creating a place for donations to be made for school districts/students in need. If you could help us create such a place, this would be much appreciated.

For more information: #NJED Disaster Relief Hompage