Sunday, February 26, 2012

Misguided Efforts in Educational Reform

A few weeks back I passed along an Education Week article to administrators in my District that highlighted the many technology challenges that states anticipate with common tests.  Below is a response to the article from Danielle Shanley, my Director of Curriculum and Instruction, as well as her sound synopsis of the misguided educational reform movement.

I think educational leaders (I have been making my voice heard in a few venues, most recently this morning) need to begin to challenge these assessments due to the issues of inequality for all children.  We have moved from testing endurance to testing technological proficiency.  When will the powers that be consider the best way to assess learning of content?  And content exit exams are not the answer…   
Image credit:

What I think we really need is to have a more realistic approach at the center of the argument.  If what we need to do is better prepare our students for a 21st century workforce, we need to provide them with a 21st century education.  That is one that does not espouse archaic Carnegie units for graduation and standardized assessments as measures of achievement.  We need classrooms without walls; we need project based instruction and project based assessment; we need personalized learning plans for all students that appeal to their interests and their talents while they support their areas of need. We need students who can read and write for a variety of purposes, make change and leave a tip without use of their cell phones.  We need to have our students play and exercise more and take advantage of more authentic learning experiences and get them out of INDUSTRIAL age K-12 assembly line classrooms.  We need to offer “Option Two” type programs to ALL students and forget about the way we are used to “doing” education in the country.  We need to move towards a system, like Finland, where they have virtually NO standardized testing and very high international academic achievement. 

We aren’t preparing our students to work on farms and in factories any more.  We aren’t preparing them to work in a suit and tie, in a bank, or in a shoe store for their entire lives. The youngest billionaire in the world (Mark Zuckerberg) goes to work in cargo shorts and flip flops.  Most work places offer creative outlets for game playing and relaxation.  Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and even the banking industry aren’t looking for “schooled followers.”  They want creative leaders and problem solvers with original ideas!  We are NOT preparing our students for an uncertain world five years from now. What is the federal government doing to help us get the students where they need to be?  Reauthorizing ESEA?  Supporting National Standards and National assessments?  It isn’t enough.  What we need is a TRANSFORMATIONAL OVERHAUL in the way we “do” education in this country.  And I’m frightened that the “powers that be” (including a whole host of non-educator politicians) think that common standards, national assessments, and holding teachers accountable for student achievement will get us there.  They won’t!

We need to redefine the role of the teacher and the training of the teacher.  We need to redefine the definitions of achievement, of learning and of preparation.  We need to celebrate creativity, teach independent and collaborative work habits, demand ethical behavior, model service, foster leadership and promote a love of learning in our children.  None of that can be assessed on a standardized test!  We need to cut the crap, and do what is GOOD and RIGHT for all students.  We need to embrace a new type of education in this country, and neither political party gives me much hope today.

I am all for improving education and student achievement.  However, current reform efforts miss the mark, as the end result will be the transformation of schools into testing factories.  Will this prepare our students for success in today's society? Is this what we want for our schools?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exploring the Educational Value of Pinterest

After hearing about all the hoopla surrounding Pinterest, I decided to check it out a few days ago.  Up until this point I really didn’t have a clue as to what it was all about except that it was a social media tool that functioned like an electronic bulletin board.  After requesting an invite, I was all set to go a day later and began to create my first pin board.   The tutorial video that you are directed to upon signing up was short, to the point, and made it incredibly simple to dive in and start creating.  I dragged the “pin it” bookmarklet into Google Chrome and off I went.

I quickly became fascinated with the idea of “pinning” together all of my professional interests.  As I began to piece together resources on Personal Learning Networks(PLN’s), I lost track of time and ended staying up well past my bedtime.  The point here was that I was engaged.  My excitement carried over to the next day as I created another board (Web 2.0 Tools). This led me to begin to brainstorm many ways in which educators could utilize this resource to enhance teaching and learning.  Here is what I came up with:
  • Curating content: The ability to pin together images, links, and videos in a visually engaging manner makes gathering and accessing information exciting.
  • Brainstorming:  Collaborative boards can be set up so multiple users can pin together ideas and resources to create one huge visual. 
  • Engaging students: The possibilities here are intriguing.  Teachers can have students set up collaborative boards for specific projects, portfolios, or to add an exciting dimension to a digital newspaper.
  • Conference summaries/notes: In my experiences at various conferences, presenters routinely share cool website links during their sessions.  Pinterest provides a great platform to accumulate all of this information and then share with colleagues. 
These are just a few ideas off the top of my head.  For a much more detailed list check out this post by Stephen Abram.  For even more information on Pinterest head over to Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day.  I think in time Pinterest will evolve into a powerful component of educator's Personal Learning Networks.  Are you using Pinterest?  Do you think it has value as an educational tool?  Please share your thoughts.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Commitment to Digital Learning

New Milford High School proudly joined 37 states, 15,000 teachers, and over 2 million students on February 1 for the inaugural Digital Learning Day.  This day, however, was not really much different than any other day at NMHS as we have made a commitment to integrate digital learning into school culture for some time now.  As Principal I am proud to state that many of the pedagogical techniques, learning activities, and tools described in the rest of this post are consistently in use on a daily basis across all content areas.  The reason for this is that we have put a premium on creating a teaching and learning culture that better meets the needs of our learners while enhancing essential skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity, media literacy, and global awareness.  Below I have summarized some of the pre-planned activities that my teachers planned and had their students engaged in on Digital Learning Day.  
Image credit:

In Ms. Levy’s U.S. History class, students learned about the rise of Jacksonian Democracy and had to determine if Jackson was a highly successful president or a corrupt leader.  Students were broken up into groups of 5-6 students.  Each student went on line and looked at one source from Ms. Levy’s website.  They then had to use their “Origin Perspective Value Limitation” handout to answer and dissect the source in classic IB format.  Once they had evaluated the source for these 4 elements, they wrote down their answers in a group created Google Doc.  Finally, they came together as a group to decide their perspective on Andrew Jackson’s presidency.  After students decided as a group, they voted individually as a class about their opinion on the source with “Poll Everywhere,” using their cell phones.

In Mrs. Morel’s art class, students embarked on a QR Code scavenger art hunt around the school. This activity began with an introduction to QR Codes: what they are, how they are used in the marketing world, how we are going to use them, and best of all, how they (students) could use them in their lives. Students also reviewed artists’ work and tried out a few QR codes in class. For the lesson, students were paired up with a partner and utilized their Smartphone, iPod, etc. to search for clues that led them to QR Codes. The QR Codes contained various artists’ work and clue information.  Mrs. Morel wrapped up the activity with a summary of the findings and then transitioned into having the students create their own QR codes with links to their artwork and websites.  These were then posted in school for our school community to scan.

Mrs. Vicari’s business classes utilized YouTube, a variety of video sites, and websites to preview Superbowl commercials as an introduction to the semester Marketing/Advertising course.  Students discussed the definitions of marketing and advertising and how they are different.  They used a series of thought-provoking questions, while viewing the various commercials, to identify different areas of marketing and advertising that will be discussed in this course throughout the semester.

Students in Mr. Tusa’s history class investigated the history of Europe through painting (1500-1800).  He challenged students to think of a painting as an essay - in the sense that it captures not in words, as an essay does, but through a visual image, some aspect(s) of the life, history, and culture of a particular historical period from the point of view not of a writer but of an artist.  Students were given a list of paintings/engravings produced in the period 1500-1800. Working with partners, they had to choose one painting from each category, study it by paying particular attention to the political, economic, religious, social, industrial, and/or artistic way in which it captures/criticizes some aspect(s) of the period 1500-1800, and record their impressions accordingly. He reminded students to “read” the painting as they would read an essay and record their view/impression of what historical themes, ideas, person or people, the painting is portraying/criticizing.  Using Mac Books:  one student recorded and shared their comments on a Google Doc while the other searched for and viewed the paintings. Links were also provided for students to locate and view paintings.

Students in Mrs. Beiner’s Culinary Arts classes created a “how to” video for recipes.  They then posted them on her YouTube account and tracked how many hits they received over the Superbowl weekend.  Her Early Childhood Development classes read a book to the pre-school children on an iPad and worked with a website to review the book.

In math, Mrs. Chellani began the lesson with mobile learning devices and Poll Everywhere to review prior learning. She then utilized a variety of virtual manipulatives (using the SMART tablet) from the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives.  These virtual games/math problems are a fantastic way to further embed the Smart tablet into daily instruction, help foster the students' development of higher-order thinking skills, and make the learning experience more challenging and enjoyable.

History teacher Ms. Millan collaborated with Mrs. Keesing, our media specialist, on a QR code assignment. Students used their cellphones to download an app to both create and read QR codes.  To tie in with their study of the English monarchy in the Elizabethan-Stuart era, they researched websites to find quality information on selected, relevant topics.  They then created QR codes for those websites.  Students printed the codes and affixed them to some of the school library's books -- some of which greatly benefited from the updated information the students located.

Later in the day, Mrs. Keesing again collaborated with a colleague, this time in science.  With Ms. Chowdhury's honors physics class, students used Edmodo as a means of collaborating on a new topic.  They shared their observations with their pre-set groups and uploaded images that they had created to further examine the concepts they were learning about and applying.

The students in Mrs. Westervelt’s Independent Living Skills course became familiar with, and completed an online job application to practice applying for a job in the 21st century.

In music, Mrs. Swarctz conducted a survey using Smartphones in all of her classes.  Those students who did not have one worked with those who did.  In addition, she used YouTube in each class to watch other schools that have performed the music they are currently performing.  During her second period class the students conducted research using YouTube to help with their solos.  Each lesson ended with students continuing to work in the Music lab on an on-line music theory program.

Students in Ms. Perna’s US History I class created Wordles to review information studied prior to their midterm.  In order to review prior learning, students worked in pairs to create Wordles related to the presidencies of Washington and Adams, up until the election of 1800.  This allowed students to work collaboratively using technology (computers) while reviewing prior learning.  As a class, they viewed and discussed the Wordles created in order for students to see what their peers had created while reviewing together as a large group before moving on with the curriculum.

Mr. Andolino had his Applied Music Theory students create a music commercial using software.  Finished products were posted to Pure Volume.  Prior to Digital Learning Day an original vocal rap and live performance was recorded with a portable recorder and uploaded online.

Ms. Millian’s math students utilized an Avermedia document camera to display work.  Poll Everywhere was used in class to express opinions and check for understanding by completing problems and texting answers in.

Using the Poll Everywhere, Mrs. Mackey’s English students used their cell phones to respond to questions based on what they knew about persuasive writing. The teacher gave out sample HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) rubrics specifically for persuasive essay writing. Then, using the Smart Board, the students read actual HSPA essay prompts and responses while using Poll Everywhere to answer, "What score do you think this essay received?" For closure, the students responded to an open ended polling question: "As of today, how do you feel you will do on the essay portion of the HSPA?"

Students in Ms. Ginter’s Biology class have been working on creating a travel brochure PowerPoint presentation using several websites that provided them with specific information on their assigned biomes. The assignment required them to include key information specific to the biome (ex. native animals, native plants, average temperature, and average precipitation), as well as interesting things for people to do or see there. They incorporated graphics in their presentation through the usage of charts, pictures, diagrams, and videos - where appropriate. The students were then responsible for rating the presentations and voting on the best one to present to a client using Poll Everywhere and their cell phones.

Here is a video we produced leading up to Digital Learning Day showcasing our Social Studies Department.

As you can see, NMHS has made a commitment to digital learning, not just on one day, but everyday.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Truly Flipped Classroom

Several years ago, two high school chemistry teachers from Colorado shifted their teaching practice dramatically.  Where previously they had lectured to students during class time, then assigned their students homework tasks meant to reinforce the lecture, they flipped that model around.  They created videos of their lectures and asked their students to watch them as homework, then used in-class time to complete the tasks that used to be done at home.  In-class time could now focus on experiments, discussions, and more active forms of learning.  Over time, they began calling this the “flipped classroom” model of instruction, and it has spread rapidly (in various forms) to a large number of classrooms.

During this same time span, 1:1 classrooms – where each student has a computing device available to be used whenever needed – have also spread quickly.  As technology continues to get more powerful, more ubiquitous, and cheaper in the coming years, this trend is assured to continue.  I believe that there is a huge opportunity for these two trends to join forces: that the principles of the flipped classroom model of instruction combined with the power of 1:1 technology can create a truly flipped classroom where it isn’t just the lectures and homework assignments that have been flipped, but rather the underlying structure of the class itself.  Here are three key areas in which such a shift can and should occur.

1.  A Shift in Pacing

The vast majority of classrooms, especially at the secondary level, expect all students within a class to learn the given material in one set, standard amount of time.  1:1 technology, combined with the power of the flipped classroom, frees us to allow students to complete material at a more individualized pace.  With students able to learn content through videos that can be watched and re-watched as needed, then work with that content at their own pace through online practice problems, simulations, or discussions, there’s no need for us to force students through material in lockstep fashion.  Individual classrooms can make major strides in individualizing student pacing on their own, but the real shift will come when entire schools choose to use mastery rather than seat-time as the key indicator for when a student has completed a class.

2.  A Shift in Classroom Ownership

Flipping the classroom can also lead to a fundamental shift in terms of who “owns” the class.  Whereas the traditional classroom has been very teacher-centered, the use of 1:1 technology allows for a much more student-centered classroom.  Instead of students listening to a standard lecture, class time can now focus on specific student questions and wonderings, and the plan for any given day can adjust immediately based on student errors or misconceptions (as shown through real-time online assessment data).  A truly flipped classroom must shift to meet the needs of the students it serves.

3.  A Shift from Passive Content Consumption to Active Content Creation

The traditional model of learning is one in which the students are generally passive recipients of content (such as a lecture).  Even in the standard flipped classroom, the students remain passive during the homework time (when they watch videos), but are at least freed to be more active learners during class time.  1:1 technology can take this one step further: students can not only become active learners; instead, they can utilize the power of technology to actually create their own content for classmates and other learners throughout the world.  Whether through a podcast, individual blog, classroom wiki, or another Web 2.0 tool, students can become the authors, lecturers, and collaborators working together to teach content to each other and to interested observers outside the classroom.

The flipped classroom is an excellent first step in making students’ in-class experiences more active, more student-centered, and more meaningful.  Combining the best aspects of the flipped classroom with the power of 1:1 technology would allow for an even more radical reshaping of the classroom.  School could become a place where students can learn at their own individual paces, can become active content creators instead of solely passive content recipients, and can learn in an environment that they “own” which adjusts rapidly to meet their learning needs and interests.

Monday, February 6, 2012

An Inside Look

One of New Milford High Schools crowning achievements is our Holocaust Study Tour.  Students that participate in this experience visit Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland.  The creator and facilitator of the program is Colleen Tambusico.  Below is text from a recent email she sent me about components of this years trip.  There are numerous references to Holocaust survivors that either participate in this trip or routinely Skype into our Holocaust & Genocide course at NMHS.  As you will see, this is an example of an ultimate authentic learning experience available to our students.  To learn more visit our Holocaust Education Program website and associated student blog.

1. Berlin, Germany

Last year, we had an exchange student at NMHS from Germany.  Her name was Sarah Lauterbach.  I got to know her in the first semester of the school year and encouraged her to take the Holocaust course second semester.  Sarah became an excellent contributor to class discussions, bringing to the discussions a perspective on Germany that only she could have as a citizen.  As Sarah returned to her hometown in northern Germany, she spoke of her experiences in America and the Holocaust course. Her high school principal contacted me recently and we are arranging to meet with Sarah, her classmates, and the principal in Berlin.  We are hoping to spend a day together at the Wannsee Villa near Berlin which today is a museum that deals with a meeting of high ranking Nazi officials in 1941 when they crafted the Final Solution.  There were many moments in class last year when Sarah taught us incredible lessons about the guilt her generation deals with in terms of the Holocaust.  In particular, when we Skyped with survivor Peter Feigl, Sarah revealed her background to him and asked how he felt about Germans today.  It was the only time I have ever seen Peter Feigl get choked up and he told her that he can't hate her or anyone else who had nothing to do with the crimes that led to the Holocaust.  Sarah later reflected upon this experience in writing and I have saved her index card response in Peter's diary as a bookmark - here is Sarah's reflection:

"For me, the most outstanding thing in the conversation with Peter Feigl yesterday was when I asked him if he would go back to Germany and he said he actually went back for a couple of times.  For me it is important to know that he is forgiving Germans.  He said there is a difference between actual Nazis and today's German generation.  This is important to me because I can identify myself with Germany, but not with the Nazis.  The experience that someone called me a Nazi was very hard for me because I felt like people don't understand me and the German culture.  People still blame Germany for what happened more than 60 years ago, but Peter, the one who was actually involved in the Holocaust as a Jew, is forgiving."

I thought including this example would demonstrate the value of this exchange with German students in Berlin and the continued potential for our students to learn important life lessons.

2. Prague - Olomouc - Trsice

The students this year will have two extraordinary opportunities in the Czech Republic.  First, Alexandra Zapruder, the author of Salvaged Pages (a book of diaries we use in the course and a long time friend and colleague from USHMM) will be traveling with us from Prague through our visit to Trsice.  Alexandra's research first led me to discover the Otto Wolf diary and our connections with the Jewish Community of Olomouc and the rescuers in Trsice.  Alexandra has never been to Olomouc or Trsice and has always wanted to be present when we dedicate the memorial to the underground hideouts that hid the Wolf family for three long years.  Secondly, we have finally acquired enough funds to build the first memorial in the forest and Alexandra will be present with us during the dedication!  You may recall last year that, for the first time, I made contact with Eva, the daughter of Lici, Otto's sister, who lives in Prague.  She came to meet us in Prague last year and spoke to our students.  This year Eva and her husband will be traveling to Trsice to witness the dedication.  Finally, a few years ago when we conceptualized the memorial project, the Mayor of Trsice wanted a second stone in the center of town honoring the rescuers and providing directions to the memorial in the forest.  We just found out last week that the mayor of Olomouc, which is the 5th largest city in the Czech Republic, has agreed to personally fund the second memorial, which will cost $6,000!  Therefore, it appears that in 2013 we will finally dedicate the second memorial in which we feel extremely proud that our efforts have caused the local community to take ownership of its own important history.

3. Zakopane, Poland

You may recall during our extended stay two years ago that we had spent a day in Zakopane, a mountain region about 1.5 hours from Krakow. While we were stuck there and planning our visit, Mr. Barmore told us of some places we could see associated with the Holocaust along the way and a rescuer we could meet who lives near Zakopane.  In 2010, we didn't have the resources or the time to plan these meetings overnight, so we decided we had the time in our schedule this year to make the trip and the meetings a reality.  Thanks to Mr. Barmore, we will visit some obscure Jewish cemeteries in the mountain region of Zakopane and meet with a rescuer associated with hiding Jews in this region.

This past summer Colleen was one of a handful of teachers selected by the USC Shoah Foundation to work on iWitness, a searchable database that gives students and educators access to watch and learn from more than 1,000 video testimonials of Holocaust survivors.  On January 23, 2012, I was fortunate to travel with Colleen and NMHS students to the United Nations in New York City to be a part of the official unveiling of iWitness.  All in all our incredible Holocaust program are the direct result of an incredible educator who truly sees the value in authentic learning.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Twitter: A Resource For All

Everyone that knows me is well aware of my professional affinity for Twitter.  As I have previously mentioned many times on this blog, it was Twitter back in March of 2009 that served as a catalyst for my transformation into the leader that I am today.  Prior to delving into this 140 character world I utilized traditional mediums for communication and professional development, had no idea what Web 2.0 was, and adamantly believed social media had absolutely no place in education.  I would say things have changed a bit.

This past December I was honored to have Scholastic visit my school.  They were led here, after all, by Twitter.  The video below details my thoughts on this game-changing resource that is available for free to all educators.

On this, the first Digital Learning Day, I have some questions for those of you reading this post.  Why do you use Twitter?  If you don't, what are your reasons? Finally, how can we move more schools to embrace social media in general as a valuable educational tool?

(You can view the entire winter Scholastic Administrator magazine HERE).