Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Drives You?

In education, I think the driving force that compels us to join the profession is the innate desire to instill a love for learning among students and to help place them on a path to success.  There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing, or knowing, firsthand that you played a small part in a student’s evolution over the years.  Foremost is the desire to work with kids. Putting in countless hours developing lessons, grading, providing feedback, observing teachers, providing professional growth activities, constructing a master schedule, formulating a budget, attending events, and writing letters of recommendation are just a few of the myriad of tasks that educators across an array of positions engage in every day.  All of this is done with a single purpose in mind – student learning, achievement, and success.  What other professional position allows for the opportunity each and every day to positively impact the life of a child?

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The above paragraph describes what I feel is the main reason each of us has chosen to pursue a career in education.  It is not about the big payday, accolades, glitz, or glamour.  If that was the case I think we can all agree that we would have chosen any other field except education.  There are, however, a select group of individuals and organizations comprising the majority of the education reform movement that do, in fact, feel that we are overpaid, underworked, and pampered with lavish packages after retirement.  To pour salt on an open wound, ideas are concocted in regards to how we should be evaluated with not a shred of research to back up these initiatives.  The fact of the matter remains that we are the ones who decided to pursue a career working with students while many others either shunned or made fun of our decision.  Now it is these people, the same ones that wanted nothing to do with the education profession, that are trying to dictate every facet of what we do.

The recent education reform movement provides an endless barrage of insults to the noble work we do everyday.  It has perpetuated schools as testing factories, something many of us have always dreaded.  While our driving force is to ignite students’ passion for learning, the relentless focus on standardized testing data is doing little to prepare our students for success in the real word.  Sorry, but that is fact, at least in my eyes.  This then leads to my final point and that is how schools are structured.  In an age where we have what seems like an endless array of tools to engage, enhance learning, and assess in a variety of ways, the majority of schools seem either content or fearful of breaking free from the industrialized model of education that has entrenched our system for over a hundred years.  Schools need to work for students as opposed to the status quo or us.  In a world now dominated with all forms of technology, our mission should be to find natural pedagogical fits.  There is no longer an excuse for creating a system that is the exact opposite of the real world.  This in itself is just as bad as the education reform efforts described previously.  

So what really drives me as an educator today?  My goal is to collaboratively create a culture of teaching and learning that resonates with my students.  Where I once feared giving up control and trusting students, I now relish the opportunity to do this each and every day.  Through the many successful initiatives where change has been sustained, our students have ultimately benefited.  With each passing day, seeing and observing the fruits of our labor in the form of students exhibiting a growing appreciation for the culture that we are creating together brings a smile to my face.  This is what drives me: making learning more about them than everyone else.

So what drives you? 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

3D Virtual Learning a New Reality

It has been yet another exciting year at New Milford High School.  We have continued to sustain numerous innovative initiatives while looking for other opportunities to improve the learning experience for the school community.  This year alone Laura Fleming, our stellar media specialist, has successfully created a Makerspace for our students as well as a digital badge platform to acknowledge the informal learning of teachers.  Both of these initiatives have exceeded our expectations and have been met by rave reviews from staff and students alike.  However, a lesser known undertaking might possibly redefine learning in ways that we could never have imagined a few years ago.

At NMHS we focus on empowering students to take ownership of their learning. To that end each staff member is also given the autonomy to be catalysts for change.  When I hired Laura last September, I explained the type of autonomy she would have, including complete control over her budget.  I then gave her one task, which was to leverage her expertise to create unparalleled learning experiences for our students that would inspire a love for learning and prepare them for success after graduation.  Using her connections, she formed a partnership with a company called Proton Media that provides essentially an enterprise solution called Protosphere intended for corporations to explore the possibilities of 3D virtual learning and collaboration in the cloud. The goal of this partnership is to create a 3D virtual learning environment for our school. Check out our progress below.

Using the Protosphere platform we are exploring the unique pedagogy in a virtual environment and technology as the learning environment.  Laura’s inspiration for this idea came from Sugata Mitra’s TED talks on how students can teach themselves and building a school in the cloud.  The cloud allows for both synchronous and asynchronous learning, attributes that we hope to utilize.   In this environment the role of the teacher shifts to facilitator of knowledge acquisition. For our virtual NMHS campus we are exploring the possibilities of 3D virtual learning, collaboration, and technology as the learning environment.  Through a pilot group of teachers and students we are exploring how communicating and collaborating is different in a virtual environment through the integration of avatars. Virtual space is much more participatory than the regular classroom.  For example, one best practice is to design experiences for the avatars to get up and move as much as possible.  Collaborative learning spaces are becoming a virtual reality for us and the potential opportunities are exciting.

It is our hope to also broaden the concept of a ‘building’ as physical attributes and physical space to include a virtual space that contributes to learning success.  For example, Laura as the library media specialist, limited by a dated library, turned to online resources and a digital space as 21st century libraries should comprise fluid, flexible learning spaces.

ProtoSphere brings NMHS students and data together in an engaging and stimulating virtual world, in which users are represented by avatars. The partnership will allow us to utilize Protosphere as a tool for face-to-face interaction in the virtual space in order to raise student achievement and to improve student performance overall while enabling our teachers to deliver classes more efficiently and effectively.  Our learners will be able to talk, view, and interact with presentation and media content, record notes and access the Web, all at the same time, from anywhere.  We will be able to embed learning into collaborative processes to improve performance and extend the learning culture while using technology as the learning environment, as well as prepare students for a 21st century workforce in which many of them will have to communicate and collaborate virtually.  Other potential outcomes will be an ability to use this 3D virtual learning environment to offer home instruction, keep school open virtually during snow days, flip the classroom, tutoring, and enrichment activities.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Building Parent Engagement: Tell Your School’s Story

The following is a guest post from Alison Anderson, who is a former teacher, tech integrator and now education blog editor. She is active an active member of the EdCampPDX planning team and continually focused on working to improve education for students in Portland and beyond. 

Parent engagement has always been a very bright spot on my radar when thinking about keys to success for schools. Lately, it feels important to distinguish between parent engagement and parent involvement. Both are important and something every school should strive for in order to create the most healthy student environment. But involvement, to me, can mean volunteering and spending time in the school and classroom- building those schools that have an instant sense of positive energy you sense the minute you walk in the school. 

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Today’s world is complicated - especially as technology continues to disrupt the different fields we have grown so used to living in. We can’t ignore that social media has completely transformed the way in which we receive and understand current events.  As this disruption starts to happen in our schools, we need to fully engage parents so that they not only understand, but feel absolutely comfortable with all the school practices and policies. 

How do you achieve that? With transparent communication and lots of it! Every school has a story, or a “brand” that captures the mission, the norms, the traditions and the values of the school population. 

As a school leader, communicating that “brand” is one of the most important jobs. But building a school “brand” is not like building a product. It’s not always easy and the steps are not always clear. There are some helpful resources emerging for administrators and edleaders who want to do this and do it right.
The more stories shared about what is happening within your school, the better your “big picture” becomes for school and community families. Schools build their brand when they share the stories that answer, “why do you send your child to that school?” That’s how a good reputation gets built. Parents and community members trust in their school “brand” and want to support school decision makers. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Inquiry vs. Memorization

Memorization often gets in the way of learning and yet the practice continues unobstructed in schools.  Fortunately the sciences provide schools and educators with many natural opportunities to move away from the boring, meaningless task of memorizing facts and information to a more constructivist approach associated with inquiry-based learning. Recently Ms Chowdhury’s Consumer Chemistry classes conducted testing on various consumer products as related to chemistry topics. While the students were learning about acids and bases, they had played with a simulation where their task was to create solutions of different pH. They also worked with another simulation that demonstrated acids and bases at a molecular level. 

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Based on their learning from the two simulations, with the facilitation of Ms Chowdhury, the students discussed about a design for testing different brands of antacids. They knew they needed a sample acid and a pH indicator. The students were given lemon juice as acid, grape juice as base and they had three brands of antacid (Equate regular strength, Equate maximum strength, and Rolaids). The students used the idea that the grape juice (pH indicator) will change color when enough of the antacid has been added to neutralize the acid. They recorded the number of drops used from each brand of antacid, and decided on Rolaids being the best among the three based on their results. 

Ms Chowdhury believes that experiments such as this helps students contextualize their learning at a more practical level rather than mere memorization of what acids and bases are. The students also thoroughly enjoy any hands on activities. Regardless of the level of the course high school students today need to think. Memorization of facts does now allow for students to truly grasp concepts, let alone apply and then demonstrate mastery. Science is primed for inquiry-based learning, but schools need to do more by promoting this pedagogical technique across all content areas. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Students Explore Space in the Palm of Their Hands

Towards the end of March and throughout April, Mrs. Moutafis' Science & Society class at New Milford High School studied Space Exploration.  Students created a timeline of the key events that helped shape space exploration, answered questions using the Padlet website, and created travel brochures of a planet of their choosing within our solar system - using the NASA website and additional resources to obtain information from. They compared their chosen planet in the solar system to Earth, and described what it would be like to vacation there. The students listed components necessary for comfortable living, tourist attractions, and possible excursions based on the terrain of their planet or neighboring satellite.  

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Using star manipulatives, the class created their own zodiac sign and the Big Dipper. They also downloaded SkyMap (or similar programs specific to their app market) and roamed the classroom to find where their zodiac sign was during the day. They also commented on other interesting features they discovered using the app, such as the location of satellites and other planets.  The class was also introduced to the Stellarium program. To begin, the class researched the longitude and latitude of New Milford, NJ. They took this information and set the default location of the program to their local sky. Students were able to navigate through the program to identify famous constellations in the night sky, their own zodiac signs, and planets visible to us at specific times. After locating them using the program guidelines, they removed them to be able to locate them without any help. Once they located them in the New Milford sky, they selected their own location in the southern hemisphere to compare it to our night sky, and also find specific constellations. 

They also researched the history of their zodiac sign, and the story unique to their specific sign. As an added component to the lesson, the class created their own astrolabe and used them to navigate in the building, just as explorers did as they navigated the seas to discover new worlds. They used it in a modified way, where they instead looked to the time and location of a constellation to determine the direction to turn in the hallway. After they found the location, they scanned a QR code located there to find a famous explorer that used the astrolabe. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Childhood is Expendable to Some Education Reformers

The following piece is cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

When I reflect on my childhood nothing but fond memories come to mind. Growing up in a rural part of western New Jersey sure had its benefits in the 1980's. Upon returning home from White Township Consolidated School (K-8) my brothers and I would complete our assigned homework in well less than an hour, which was reasonable in my opinion. More often than not as soon as we finished we whisked out the door of our house to get outside regardless of the weather. The next couple of hours before and after dinner were then spent playing with friends outdoors, exploring, riding bikes, fishing, shooting hoops, or hiking. If by some chance the weather were really bad we would then play with toys, tinker with Legos, or challenge each other to the coolest games of our young generation on the Atari and later Nintendo. For good measure some time was also spent on the Commodore 64 and Apple IIe computers.

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The childhood years were some of the best of my life as they should have been. Three was enough time dedicated to learning during my elementary years, but also ample time for play, exploration, competition, and leisure. These experiences definitely helped mold me into the adult I have become today. School complimented my activities at home as education was structured in a way that focused on experiential learning, play, performance, and building self-esteem. I learned and acquired array of skills that prepared me not only for college and careers, but also life. I can't even begin to imagine what my life would have been then or become today if these experiences had been ripped from me. Unfortunately this has now become reality for our youngest students in 2014 and the near future in the name of education reform.

Education reform is destroying childhood as we know it at both home and school. As a parent of two elementary students (first and third grade) in Staten Island, NY, I witness daily the negative impacts that Common Core and standardized testing, under the guise of education reform, are having on them. They come home each day and spend hours on homework that makes little sense to them and absolutely no sense in some cases to us, especially in math. Their love for learning is squashed as more of an emphasis has been placed on instructional scripts aligned to the Common Core, test prep, and homework designed to make them relive the torture they just went through in school. I do not fault the school, principal, or teachers for the wretched environment that my kids are exposed to each day, but rather the reformers who are making them hate school with a passion. Shouldn't we be instilling a passion for learning in each and every child? 

Education reform will be the demise of our once great educational system if politicians and other stakeholders do not get a grip soon. A recent story from an elementary school in Long Island, NY should make the dire predicament we are in very clear. Just the title of the article alone painfully illustrates the monumental mistakes that are being made for the sake of "improving" education - Kindergarten show cancelled so kids can study to be 'college ready'. Here is an excerpt that should make every parent and educator's blood boil:
A Long Island school has canceled its traditional end-of-year kindergarten show -- saying the children can't afford to take time off from getting themselves "college and career'' ready. "The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple," reads a letter sent by the principal at Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, Suffolk County, to parents last week. "We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers."
Are you kidding me? How can anyone with a good conscious do this to little kids? It is these experiences that make learning relevant, meaningful, and fun. The fact that schools feel they even need to prepare elementary students to be college and career ready is appalling in my opinion. This is not even the worst of it though. Other priceless elementary experiences that define the childhood years are being dramatically cut such as the arts and language programs, recess, and extracurricular activities. Developmentally young students need these experiences, but they become quite expendable as only Common Core aligned math and language arts associated activities will create a college and career ready student down the line. What is being done to them in essence is robbing them of some of the most important, life-defining moments of their long lives that will provide the foundation for future successes.

This post provides me with a stark reminder that current education reform has absolutely nothing to do with authentic learning, success, and student achievement. It has become a financial pipeline to line the coffers of anyone associated with Common Core, standardized testing conglomerates, and test prep. The pressure put on teachers to prepare young students for college and careers is utterly ridiculous and should be replaced with inspiring them to explore and discover their learning passions. After all, this is what our system was based on for years and success followed. As a society we cannot stand idly by while crucial foundational elements for learning such as play, creativity (driven by students), discovering one's identity, and the showcasing of non-tested skills are eradicated from elementary schools. If we do I fear that our education system will hit rock bottom in a few mere years and we will have no one to blame but ourselves for not acting.