Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Capstone Experience

One of our guiding beliefs here at New Milford High School is that our students will find purpose and meaning in their respective learning experiences.  Over the years we have added a series of new courses (19 in just two years), re-written the curriculum of existing courses, made available online courses as part of the VHS Collaborative, and developed numerous authentic learning experiences focusing on the unique interests of our learners.  All of these components have become critical elements of the Academies at New Milford High School.  As a result of these changes and the creation of the Academies, we have seen increases in academic achievement, graduation rates, and acceptances to four-year colleges.

Earlier this month I shared the Independent Open CourseWare Study (IOCS) project on this blog.   The IOCS project empowered our students to follow their learning passions and actively demonstrate new knowledge that was acquired.   We wanted students to have the freedom to learn about anything they were interested in using content from some of the most prestigious universities in the country while also unleashing their creativity.  In addition to this project, a book study on the Alchemist, and numerous off-campus field trips, Academy students develop a capstone project as a culminating experience.  This provides each student the opportunity to describe where he or she has been and where he or she is headed.

The final product has to be presented in a digital format and must be reflective of the theme “where I have been and where I am headed” or reflective of “your personal journey” in an authentic application.  Basically, students need to explain their personal/academic journey thus far and describe their goals: academically, personally and/or professionally.  No matter the creative avenue students’ choose to pursue (songs, poems, dramatic interpretations, artistic renderings etc.); the essential criteria must still be met.   This includes the following:

  • Must make direct reference to essential learnings throughout your NMHS coursework, which have influenced who you are and your aspirations.  Tell the viewer what NMHS has taught you about yourself and life. 
  • Must include legal (school) name and graduation year within the body of the presentation.  
  • Must have an academic focus but can still include sports, arts, clubs, service etc.  
  • Must include things you would like to do, learn, understand, see, improve, create or experience.
  • Must capture the attention of the audience (teachers, administrators, peers).
  • Must be original and make references to sources where appropriate (background music, art work, quotations, etc.)
  • Must make direct mention of NMHS in some way, via symbols or direct reference.  
  • Must make direct mention of major Academy designation, via symbol, crest or direct reference. 
  • Must make direct reference to any endorsement that may be sought.   
  • Must offer evidence of any of the 21St Century Skills acquired: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, media literacy, technological proficiency, global awareness, and preparation for college, careers and life.  Label essential elements for clarity of scoring.  Don’t make us guess what the images, symbols or people represent.  
  • Must reflect interests and personality.   
Below is an example of one of the more creative capstone projects by senior Tariq Khan:

The capstone experience provides our students with an opportunity to tie together social, emotional, family, and learning experiences in a creative way to share their personal journey.  This exposition of learning not only allows them to reflect upon their time at NMHS, but also provides us with a glimpse as to what we re doing well and where we can improve as a school.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Game Design as a Catalyst For Learning

Over the course of this school year, I have been fortunate enough to share ideas on technology integration with Judy Wilson, my children’s principal at P.S. 3 in Staten Island, NY.  Many of these conversations focused on my own son’s use of technology as a catalyst for creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking developed by playing Minecraft and using iMovie to storyboard and create his own movies.  These conversations eventually led Judy to include Nicholas in a pilot program at the school where students would be creating virtual reality games after the regular school day.  As someone who loves educational technology and knowing how much my son does as well, my wife and I figured this was an unbelievable opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.
My son and PS 3 student Nicholas playing a virtual reality game created by his peers.

After participating in the program for over three weeks, Judy invited us to see firsthand what the students had been doing.  This was where I finally learned about VR Quest™ developed by Warren Black.  Warren developed this program for middle and high school students, but Judy convinced him that elementary school students could do it.  With the help of teachers who stepped out of the box to work with the kids – Justine Kostenbader (Technology) and Mr. James Laieta (Language Arts) – the after school program was born.  The resulting pilot consisted of mostly fifth and fourth grade students as well as just two students in the second grade.  I cannot begin to explain how excited I was when I found out that my son Nicholas was one of the two second grade students authentically engaged in the design of games to solve complex programs.

VR Quest™ is a fun and educational project-based learning (PBL) model that integrates fully immersive Virtual Reality technology.  It enriches students’ lives by offering computer and real-life skill instruction delivered through comprehensive projects in the subject areas of science, history and social studies.  Each VR Quest™ project has a specific content area as its "lead" theme. As the project unfolds, a myriad of other subject areas and disciplines are woven into the mix to create a rich and challenging cross-curricular experience. Check out what some schools in Hawaii are doing with VR Quest™.

VR Quest™ students work as a team to create a Virtual Reality multimedia environment. They develop a vested interest in their project by becoming an integral part of a production crew and participating in a challenge or theme, which relates to their own lives. Creating their virtual worlds helps students develop skills in game design, art, storytelling, 3-D animation, computer literacy, research, reading, problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork. Upon completion of the project, students enter their virtual worlds via a head-mounted display and interact with their creations.

The two lead themes that students could choose from were ancient Egypt and Mars.  Can you guess which theme most of them chose?  The entire activity is connected to the Common Core and consists of seven specific steps:

  1. Define objective
  2. Brainstorm
  3. Research on Macs
  4. Storyboard by hand
  5. Build the interface
  6. Pilot test of game created
  7. Take completed project home to play

Below is a video highlighting the work done by these students.

It was so exciting to see what my son and his classmates had created.  It was apparent from their presentations that the project focused on essential skills sets (communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, global awareness) and was thoroughly engaging.  Just watching these young children line up to play each other’s games and explain what they had created at 7:00 PM was a testament to the effectiveness of this program.  I commend both Judy Wilson and Warren Black for providing my son with this enrichment opportunity.  Now I have to work on brining this amazing program to the students of New Milford High School.

To learn more about VR Quest contact Warren Black at 631-365-2506 or

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Authentic Learning Can't Be Standardized

This year’s Holocaust Study Tour took place from April 1 through 14.  I am proud to say that this unparalleled learning experience, under the direction of Colleen Tambuscio, has taken place for the last twelve years at NMHS.  Students that participate in this experience travel to Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic as they learn firsthand about one of the most traumatic events in human history.  The trip involved twelve NMHS students, two students from Midland Park High School (NJ), and nine students from Bishop O’Dowd High School (CA).  Once again they recorded their daily journey on the trip blog.   Please visit the blog for an in-depth look at the dedicated students who participated in HST 2013 as they reflect upon what they learned.  

Some of this year’s highlights include the following:

  • In Prague the group once again met with Pavel Stransky who inspired them with his story of survival and took them to Theresienstadt, where he worked as a teacher during the Holocaust, and where he married his girlfriend Vera in order to stay together when they were sent to Auschwitz.  For the entire day our students asked him questions, and learned from his experiences as they visited the Theresienstadt ghetto and prison.  Pavel’s story of survival, which he calls his Holocaust love story, means so much to group because they know the kind, sweet man who experienced this horrible moment in history.  For a more detailed synopsis check out Day 5 from the trip blog.
  • This year the group had the opportunity to stop in the town of Lostice on their way to Olomouc.  Lostice is a town of about 3,000 people. In Lostice, they were met by the town historian and Director of the Respect and Tolerance program, Ludek Stipel. Mr. Stipel took the group to the former Lostice synagogue and gave them the history of the Jews in Lostice. They had an incredible opportunity to learn how they utilize this former synagogue as an education center. Our students were engaged in an innovative approach to Holocaust education by viewing these boxes, which included documentation of survivors from Lostice and the surrounding towns.  For a more detailed synopsis check out Day 8 from the trip blog.
  • In Trsice, through the support of the U.S. Commission for America’s Heritage Abroad, the group was able to dedicate a second memorial to the Wolf family, which honors the rescuers of this community.  The dedication was another opportunity for students to witness history in the making.  An article appeared in the Global Post, which highlighted this portion of our trip.  

Technology has enabled all stakeholders to become a part of this authentic learning experience.  More importantly, however, is the apparent fact that this type of learning experience cannot be replicated in the classroom.  Before, during, and after the trip students engage in authentic learning elements while enhancing essential skill sets such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, media/digital literacy, and global awareness.  The culminating learning activity is the ultimate creative artifact where students compile everything they learned into a book and documentary using Adobe tools.  This is followed by a public presentation to the New Milford community and program donors.  Learning beyond the walls of a school can and often does leave a lasting impact on our students and will never be able to be measured by a standardized test.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You’ll End Up Somewhere Else

The following is a guest post by Juliana Meehan.

As I sat with my stack of 100+ personal narratives waiting for grading, the enormity of the task threatened to swamp whatever energy I had.  After thirteen years of teaching high school and middle school language arts, the idea of having to mark those papers with notations like “run-on” and “fragment” ad nauseam drove me to seek a different solution.  In my desperation, I remembered a session I wandered into at AMLE the year before, where Catherine Garrison of Measured Progress gave a talk on formative assessment and learning targets coupled with the Common Core Curriculum Standards (CCCS).  The idea was simple but powerful, and I realized in my consternation that what I had learned from Garrison was the answer to my present dilemma.

Image credit:

I put all my papers aside and took out the CCCS.  The idea was simple:  select those core standards that pertain to narrative writing (written in “teacher-ese”) and turn them into student-friendly language with the words “I can” in front of them.  For instance, some excerpts,

For composing (A):

A1_____ I can have my story unfold as a series of clear events.

A2_____ I can create a background for my story by telling stories, giving examples.
A3_____ I can organize events so that they unfold naturally and logically.

For publishing (B):

B1_____ I can show that I am editing my work.

B2_____ I can vary sentence length, depending on meaning, reader/ listener interest, and style.

For doing research to build knowledge (C):

C1_____ I can look at ways other writers have created their stories by reading several stories and imitating the style (or styles) that I think fit my work.

C2_____ I can do a bit of research so that my story is as realistic as possible; I will be able to show what I’ve learned and where I found it (from books, the Internet, interviews, etc.).

For using conventions of English (D):

D1_____ I can make sure it’s clear what character a pronoun refers to in my writing.

D2_____ I can use commas to set off an introductory phrase.

D3_____ I can use a comma with a conjunction to correct a run-on sentence.

It took a lot of work, but now my stack of papers could be coded at the end with E17 for “run-ons,” and A7 for “give background, thoughts and feelings.”  I would write short codes once, not many times.

Students and teacher then collaborate to decide which targets should be worked on first (I call it “writing triage”) and then, when a student demonstrates mastery, we put a check mark in their sheet and they move on to the next one(s).

Having done the hard work of breaking down the CCCS and creating those targets, I would now be doing several powerful things all at once:

  • Giving students a rationale for my grading (I would explain the CCCS to them, i.e., “These are not my rules; they’re what students your age are expected to know and be able to do all across the country!”)
  • Putting the CCCS right into the students’ hands, thereby transferring responsibility for and ownership of their work to them.
  • Providing clear expectations.
  • Providing students with measurable targets.
  • Keeping my eyes on the CCCS.
  • Uncovering patterns:  whole-class and individual strengths and weaknesses.
  • Developing a system by which I could easily group students for whole-class or flexible, small group instruction.
  • Providing a solid and easy way to formatively assess going forward.

And the targets were all ready for any future writing assignments too.  I only needed to do this once!

Now students would have feedback and goals set for their next writing work.  They’d know exactly what they should be working on for a better grade.  And I would have done the work of assessment with minimal frustration and repetition, knowing that I was setting my students up for future achievement.

I am indebted to Garrison for her fine work and to Yogi Berra for his catchphrase, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else," which the students loved as our learning targets motto!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Personalizing Learning for All Students With OpenCourseWare

Cross-posted at SmartBlog on Education.

Around this time last year I received what I thought was an odd request. Juliana Meehan, a teacher from a neighboring district, contacted me and asked if I would agree to mentor her as part of her training to become an administrator as part of the NJ EXCEL program.  Now at this time my plate was extremely full and, as a result, I was very reluctant to take on this additional responsibility.  My tune quickly changed when Julie explained that she requested me specifically because she was so inspired by the Edscape Conference as well as the transformation currently taking place at New Milford High School (NMHS).  I agreed to act as her mentor.

During our first meeting Julie explained to me what my responsibilities were as a mentor.  She then informed me that one of the primary components of the internship was to develop a project requiring leadership that would impact students at the school level.  It was at this point that the internship became an opportunity to do something that could truly transform the learning culture here at NMHS.  As we floated around some project ideas, I became fixated on ways to personalize and individualize the learning experience for my students. This is where the idea for incorporating OpenCourseWare (OCW) into Julie’s project arose, and the Independent OpenCourseWare Study (IOCS) was born.

Julie’s challenge was to develop a framework by which students could engage in the OCW of their choosing over a set time period and then apply what they had learned.  Together, we mapped out what this learning experience would look like, when it would be offered, how it would be assessed, and methods to collect data.  The most difficult decision was identifying a group of students that could help us pilot such a program.  After some thought, the perfect cohort of students materialized:  NMHS seniors enrolled in one of the “Academies @ NMHS.”  The Academies @ NMHS is a program of concentrated studies in three well-defined, career-focused areas directly connected to university majors and workforce need: the Academy of Arts & Letters, the STEM Academy, and the Academy for Global Leadership.  The program seeks to cultivate emerging professionals who exhibit the knowledge, skill, character and the work ethic necessary for success in the global marketplace. This group seemed the prime test group through which to flesh out and begin to refine the idea of IOCS.

In the early fall we had a meeting with the 50 students who were enrolled in the Academies.  We explained that their Marking Period 2 project would be an independent learning experience where they would take a course from a prestigious university such as MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or other noted university via the range OCW offerings that they would find in an online resource that we would provide.  Furthermore, they were told that, after taking the course, there would be an exposition of learning where each student would actively demonstrate new knowledge and skills that were acquired through the OCW.  They were given complete autonomy and flexibility as to how they would articulate what they learned, but they were told that there would be an emphasis on application as opposed to a standard presentation.  They would be assessed using a project-based rubric, and each student would receive one honors credit for the project.  Over the course of the marking period, students identified courses, registered through our Google form, and went to work.  An example of one standout student project can be found here.

We learned a great deal after the student presentations this past February, and were pleasantly surprised by how seriously many of the students took this learning opportunity.  

MIT OCW discovered our project through social media channels and they eventually did a case study on IOCS.  

The result of this work has been the creation of the IOCS website.  All aspects of the project—including resources and the rubric to assess student projects—can be found here.  Julie and I hope that this site will provide tools and ideas on how schools can harness the free, world-class knowledge available to individualize and personalize learning for all students.  
To learn more check out this free webinar on IOCS over at at

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Discovery Education's Common Core Academies

Educators across America are grappling with what the Common Core State Standards
(CCSS) mean for their instruction and have key questions around successful implementation:

  • What are the core components of the CCSS and how do they impact me?
  • How do I integrate the CCSS most effectively into my curriculum and instruction?
  • How do I create assessments that align to the CCSS?
  • How do I plan for the successful implementation of the CCSS in my classroom? My school?  My district?

As a trusted educational partner, Discovery Education has worked with thousands of educational leaders to transform teaching and learning. They understand that successful implementation requires a focus on fundamentals: curriculum, instruction, assessment, and leadership.

Educators are invited to join their peers for Common Core Academies that are:

  • Research-based: Their professional development integrates proven curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices from expert practitioners and thought leaders.
  • Personalized: Each Academy addresses educator-identified needs related to the transition to more rigorous standards.
  • Actionable: They provide classroom applications that support long-term action planning with strategies for immediate classroom integration.

ELA Academy: This two-day, hands-on Academy will engage K-12 educators in an intense focus on research-based English Language Arts (ELA) instructional practices to successfully implement the rigors of text complexity, evidence-based writing, and vocabulary development in their ELA and content area classrooms. Specifically, this Academy will dive into what these practices look like and how to build them into the curriculum to maximize student engagement and achievement. Educators will then utilize this knowledge to develop CCSS lesson plans and assessment tasks for immediate use in their ELA or content area classroom.

Math Academy: The CCSS not only require shifts in what we teach, but most importantly, in how we teach. During this two-day Academy, K-12 educators will dive into each of the Standards for Mathematical Practice and analyze the types of instruction these standards warrant. Practical strategies as well as options for balanced assessment of the content standards will be explored and discussed. Educators will leave with tools, including lessons and assessment tasks for immediate use.

Leadership Academy: The CCSS require a number of shifts that need to be made in current curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. As leaders, we need to think, plan, and act differently. What changes have you made as an instructional leader? In this two-day, hands-on Academy, central office, building, and teacher leaders will discuss implications for curriculum, instruction, and assessment as a result of the CCSS shifts and share practices that work. In particular, leaders will focus on the CCSS classroom and what it looks like. Participants will explore research-based strategies and tools to monitor teachers’ use of best practices to effectively teach the new standards so all students can meet them. Participants will also explore and develop strategies to use with students and parents to prepare them for more rigorous standards.

Specialized Instruction: The CCSS are for all students, including those who receive special education services. These rigorous expectations require that students have a deep level of understanding in ELA and Mathematics. This two-day, hands-on Academy will provide K-12 educators with research-based practices to connect the demands of the CCSS to instruction that supports students with special needs. Specifically, participants will closely examine the ELA and Mathematics CCSS to investigate strategies for students to access, respond to, engage in, and ultimately, meet their learning targets.

These Academies will provide educators with the support they need in the Common Core era. Click HERE to register to attend.