Elite New York “Pressure Cooker” Schools are Rethinking Homework

An article about homework in this weekend’s nytimes couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time, as I continue to search and explore ways to make homework (now called “home learning” in our second grade classes) be meaningful.

Sending a worksheet home, so that it can be returned the next day for the sake of compliance is not the message I want students to get. If I have to assign it, and kids have to do it, it has to have purpose beyond that. Being prepared to share something in class with their peers is valuable.  So is practicing various skills as long as there is immediate and meaningful feedback. Unfortunately, over the course of a regular busy schoolday, one often doesn’t have a chance to check a child’s homework until after the end of the day, so by the time a child receives feedback, was the home learning task really that successful?

Towards the end of last year, I thought I’d give Kahn Academy a try, and while it worked for some, it didn’t achieve what I was hoping. What I did like was the immediate feedback kids were getting at home. Sal Kahn spoke at our regional conference this year and I was surprised how novel his ideas seemed to many teachers.  He isn’t the only one who’s been trying new things, but he’s been endorsed by Bill Gates and has also done a TED talk, so he’s definitely more visible.

So this year, my teaching partner suggested some other online tools which were more age appropriate than Kahn’s, covered multiple subjects so that kids could have some choice in their learning, used tech in a way that allowed for immediate feedback, and allowed us to still included elements that required kids to be prepared to share as well as take some responsibility to bring certain things back to school (even though it might not be daily).

Well, I wouldn’t call it a complete success after the first month. There were a lot of elements to consider, and some we have reconsidered.  Many things, however did work. There are elements that really seem to be doing what we hoped, and they just need to be revised and tweaked. In the classroom, my students have begun to start appreciating the idea of process and revision and not always about getting it right on the first try. It’s great that I can show kids that it is also how adults learn. We didn’t get it right on the first try, but we’ll see how the adjustments go, and report back. Thanks to all my students’ parents who provided excellent feedback in helping us refine it.

It’s nice, though, to know the most elite independent schools in New York (not that it should be a measure of anything) are also working on similar issues. We too, will be giving a “Home Learning” holiday on October 31st!

Still Learning #isedchat

In the book The New Culture of Learning, which I briefly posted about a week or so ago, the authors conclude that the fusion between the two elements of information and experimentation, and the resulting transformation of both, is what defines this new culture. In a sense, it’s learning through play.

This past Friday, I concluded a three week teaching stint for SIG at The Overlake School. I have done a lot of reading about longer 90 minute classes, multi-age groups, process-based curricula, etc., and these past three weeks gave me the opportunity to experiment with those ideas.

It’s true one can learn a lot through reading, or be inspired by watching. I have to agree with the authors, though, that until you do it yourself, fail, learn and try again, play and experiment, the other kind of learning isn’t transformational.

My challenge for the coming school year will be to make sure my students are not only inspired to learn, but are given opportunities to experiment as well. I also want to try and have a good balance which focuses on both the processes as well as the skills.

One of the many reasons I blog is that I’m intrigued by the pros and cons of social media, something I’m still learning a lot about. And believe it or not, it was a tweet I responded to that led me to the summer gig. Aside from my own personal learning, it was great to meet and work with some wonderful educators and kids.

I’d love to write and reflect more about my experience, but I’m in the middle of nowhere and just glad there’s currently a small wifi signal so I can post this. So much for those who insist iPads are only consumption devices.

The new culture of learning is about mindsets and motivation. Hopefully, I can teach kids that.

Best PD for Teaching IS Teaching

It’s been a while since I’ve taught during the summer, but this one particular program I started at yesterday intrigued me. First, the objectives of the classes were not written the way  State Standards or Core Curricula are written. For example, one of the objectives in one of the classes I’m teaching is for the student to ‘explore the different ways to employ creativity techniques in the development of a new invention.’ Second the classes are 90 minutes long which really allow for project/problem-based learning activities. Third, these are all multi-aged classes, so I’m seeing kids from ages 5 to 12 throughout the day. Not having committees, faculty meetings, regular email communication with parents, homework to assign, and unbelievable amounts of autonomy to reach or adapt these objectives to the actual kids I’m teaching, I have had time to play with, use, and have kids use technology in the class already. Finally, the program is only three weeks long, so there’s a lot of interesting thought that goes into planning out the courses. There are a lot of books about regular classrooms and how important it is to set the tone and expectations for kids in the first 6 weeks. I’ve only got three!

One can read and see examples of project/problem-based learning, but until you have a solid 90 minute block and figure out how to utilize that time best to suit the needs of the kids, it’s just a theory. By nature of the schools I’ve worked in, I haven’t taught a multi-aged class in over a decade. It’s been a lot of fun (and it’s only been my second day on the job). I am also loving the objectives being so open-ended and relevant to kids’ lives. While objectives for basic skills can be and are appropriate, it is evident that these kids are getting basic skills instruction and practice as part of their project/problem-based objective. Just thinking about the ‘real-world’ product that kids will create as a final assessment has been fun for me. Making the material relevant to them now, not someday in the future increases their motivation incredibly.

Professional Development can happen in so many ways. We can have workshops, attend conferences, teach other teachers, or coach, but in my mind, I think the best way to become a better teacher is to keep trying new ways to teach and adapt to your students.

In our own schools, it is possible for us to develop professional development like this. According to Douglas B. Reeves in his book Transfroming Professional Development into Student Results, he notes that not only does a school have to have vision for this kind of PD, but also implementation. Without implementation, the vision “not only fails to achieve the intended objectives but also engenders cynicism and distrust.”

Reeves also criticizes most schools for what he calls “Institutional Multitasking,” and that we need to FOCUS: Focus on teaching, curriculum, assessment, and leadership. Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009) stated that the largest effects in teacher improvement were found for programs offering between 30 and 100 hours over 6 to 12 months. We’d have to use all our faculty meetings and in-service days throughout the year just on one topic to reach that goal. So what is one of the biggest factors in supporting this kind of PD? The schedule. Marzano (2009) notes that school “leaders must be the architects of systems and schedules.”

Finally, Reeves talks about recognizing our biases and being willing to fail. “School leaders have a particular responsibility to respect research integrity, particularly when a teacher-researhcer expresses disappointment that a planned intervention was ineffective.” Teachers have to get over their fear of being wrong or making mistakes. It’s how we learn.

This summer job that I’ve got is a great one. Including the work I’m doing prepping for each class, I’m spending about 105 hours. That definitely puts me in Darling-Hammond’s range. Unfortunately, it’s not over 6 to 12 months. The systems and schedules for the next school year, may determine how effective our school’s PD is. I will have to build in my own to maintain what I’m currently learning.

We had a guest speaker talk about the campus's Green initiatives. These kids are examining native and invasive species on the campus's wetlands.

Another 8 Things Learned at ISTE

The final day of ISTE came fast and furious. To squeeze in more sessions, the breaks were shorter and there was no shortage of information overload. The ending keynote was given by the principal of the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy (a public school working in partnership with the Franklin Institute), Chris Lehmann. Before he was introduced on stage, we were given three bits of advice: 1) Get it out of your brain (write about it, blog or old-style journaling), but organize and put it all somewhere; 2) Don’t wait to get started (try some of those new tools, reflect on how you’d use it with your class/school, etc.); 3) Share! I plan to do more sharing, but for now, here are 8 things I learned today.

8) I’d love to come back to ISTE and have others from my school to share the experience. It’s in San Diego next year, which might make this more feasible. Perhaps partnerships with nearby public schools.

7) We should take no greater pleasure than seeing our students eclipse us. (Paraphrased from Lehmann’s keynote.

6) The great lie of education is to tell kids, “You might need it some day.” Make it relevant. If they need to know it now, they will be motivated to do it now.

5) I understand resources cost money, but some companies are selling devices that no smart teacher would use if they knew the much much cheaper alternatives out there. There are document cameras at our school that cost over $600 (I won’t say who this vendor was). I found one for $75 from the company iPevo. Apart from no light source it’s a great simple to use document camera. The company had a booth and the people there were extremely helpful. When I asked about light source when lights are off, they offered a couple of solutions – one) a cheap desk lamp; 2) a small flashlight and some zip ties; 3) the exposure mode in the software (something new I learned). They were more about, “How can this tool help your kids,” and less about “buy this version now. It’s improved.” I know, different sales tactics, but if you start your pitch with my students, I will be more inclined to take the time to listen.

image from ipevo site

4) Jobs that are facilitated by tech are growing. Design, architecture, engineering, science, and in fact most jobs of the future will depend on the creative class (current trends, Daniel Pink, Richard Florida). Technology facilitates creativity. Those that can be replaced by tech will and should be (i.e. online math tutors in India for fractions of the cost). You cannot compete with price. This includes teachers who don’t see themselves as creative and aren’t learning when to use tech to facilitate teaching/learning. A teacher needs to matter to a student. If you look at Dale’s Learning Cone from 1968 or Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), they still hold true for how we learn and how important it is to focus as in the case of Dale’s Cone (the bottom) and in the case of Bloom’s Taxonomy (the top). With Bloom’s you cannot do the top if you don’t have the skills below it.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Dale's Learning ConeModified Blooms Taxonmy

3) A cartoon I saw that I loved had a boss yelling at an employee, “Get back to the cubical and start thinking outside the box!”

2) More early literacy resources at Readilicious (again, thanks to all presenters for posting their links, resources, etc.)

1) Don’t give your kids the answers. Let them grapple with it, predict, apply, be resourceful. A good metaphor was the horror movie: If there is a real intense scene and someone tells you, “don’t worry, the cops will arrive just in the nick of time,” that experience is lost. That is the same for kids’ learning. If you TELL them rather than let them DISCOVER it, you have just spoiled their learning experience/opportunity.

What an incredible 3.5 days! I have never before been this overloaded with information. Still the bottom line is this: No matter how much tech is out there. No matter how extensive your PLN is, you have to remember it’s all about relationships. The response you received from a question you tweeted didn’t come from a google algorithm. It came from an actual person. What a great experience to have met some of the actual people in my extended PLN. It’d be great to find educators public and independent elementary teachers who tweet locally. I’ll leave you with this: I am smart. My colleagues, students, parents of students, are collectively much smarter. My PLN is brilliant!

I will continue to share bits and pieces review the resources I’ve learned about and talk about a great book I’m almost through called The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the  Imagination for a World in Constant Change  by John Seely Brown. The independent school group at ISTE has chosen this book as a summer book club book, and they’ve got the author to agree to a web chat sometime between mid-August and early September depending on the author’s schedule. I’m more than half-way through. It’s quick easy and thought provoking. If you’re a twitter user, Vinnie Vrotney will be hosting an #isedchat on July 21st. More details to follow.

If you’re interested on Chris Lehmann’s talk, you can get an idea of his philosophy through his TEDxPhilly talk.

8 Things I Learned Today

One of the sessions at ISTE that I attended was called Google to the Max: The Power User’s Guide by Dr. Howie Di Blasi. The title was not an understatement. After a nice introduction where he talked about 8 things he learned today, the speaker powered through example after example of incredible ways to utilize the free tools available through google that kids and teachers can use. One simply has to be creative. Thank goodness those resources and examples will be posted tomorrow, so I could sit back an actually learn a few things. Here are 8 of the many things I learned today.

8 ) There are so many resources out there that it’s extremely hard to sift through them all. Thank goodness others are sharing the wealth. An example, would be from a session I attended today called Resources for Emergent Literacy Teachers by Boni Hamilton. Here is her resource page on early literacy alone. Of these resources, I really liked the reading assessment database which gathers all available reading assessments for preK to 3rd grade, groups them into either criterion referenced or norm referenced assessments, tells you how much they cost, and what these assessments do and do not test. For example, you can see on the chart that the DIBELS assessment, one of the tools we use at our school, is a free resource that assesses reading comprehension (through retells), decoding, cipher knowledge, phoneme awareness, and letter knowledge (depending on the grade). What it doesn’t assess is language comprehension, background knowledge, linguistic knowledge, phonology, syntax, semantics, lexical knowledge, alphabetic principle, and concepts about print.  Depending on the age of your kids, you would look to other assessments then, to glean more information about the other areas or reading.

7) Collaborative writing is interesting, and I participated in a demonstration this morning using the tool MixedInk. This would have a lot of potential for teachers who want to create a shared document on school policies, beliefs about education philosophies, or other subject areas. Having said that, I tried a shared google doc with our faculty this year, but did not get any participation. I also think peer editing works for older kids and that younger kids aren’t ready to ‘critique’ their peers’ work without it becoming a popularity contest. Some teachers say they assign code names to their students, so only the teacher knows, but in the end many shared theirs with each other. I would also find it difficult to have 8 year olds deciding which of the different sources is best. The fact that this tool allows users to rate others worries me too.

6) I’ve never seen so many ed Tech vendors gathered in one space. You can tell who the big players are as their ‘booths’ look like full-blown stores. What’s even better is that many have their own sessions – and they’re good. Here’s an example. What I liked was that you obtained their schedule by snapping a QR code with your smart phone. No paper. It’s a tech conference. I do not want fliers, pamphlets, or google logo beach balls. As it is, the conference program is over 200 pages. I will however claim an ipad if my name is drawn – so far, no luck.

5) Tech Ed. does not belong to the young teachers. It belongs to those motivated to learn. I would say most here are over 40. Neither age nor gender seemed to play a factor in tech ed. Except that during the purely elementary school sessions I attended – males are still grossly underrepresented. Using tech in education is a mindset.

4) I love infographics. I attended a great session with Kathy Schrock. Again…resource/info overload. Thank goodness for a site she put together for this presentation with all the links.

3) Administrators need to play, explore, use technology to teach (hold meetings, reflect, share resources, engage in PD, blog, etc.) as well as teachers and students to really make change happen as better decisions on the type and implementation of tech is more likely to happen. This message was repeated by several presenters.

2) Tech seems designed to bring out the problem solvers in us. Let it bring out the problem solvers in kids. Kids in second grade or younger should work in pairs when on a computer. It’s not simply the tech that’s helping them learn different literacies, but the conversation they’re having with each other is even more important for development.

1) People from Philly are direct. Walking through the massive maze-like conference an attendee asked one of the security workers for directions. After giving him directions, the attendee started walking the wrong way. The security agent rolled her eyes, yelled at the gentleman and said, “Sir, did you hear anything I said? It’s that way.” As he reversed direction, she threw her arms up in the air and in a voice loud enough for all to hear she continued, “That’s a man for you!” I felt for the poor guy, but was so glad it wasn’t me.

Rubik's Cube solver made of Lego - I really liked this.

What is the Point of Learning?

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a TEDx event at Eastside Prep. Several speakers really spoke not only about what’s wrong with much of our education system (that would be too easy to do). They also spoke of changes that would enhance learning – the real kind of learning where you take risks, sometimes fail, but persevere until you get it. The reward is intrinsic. The value and motivation comes from the learning itself. For example, changing the schedule to allow for longer deeper inquiry or assessment without grades. Honestly, if I was evaluated on a grading system rather than through goal setting, feedback, and reflection, I wouldn’t do it. So why do we do this with kids in middle, high, and even some elementary schools? I’m glad people are motivated to put on events TEDx events focused around education. There’s another TED education event in this area, TEDxOverlake (How People Learn,) happening on June 18.

This week, the videos of these talks were posted, and I wanted to highlight a couple of speakers that addressed the above in different but concrete and passionate ways. The first is by Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher called The Future of Education Without Coercion (you should also check out his blog, ThinkThankThunk.

The second is the talk by Dr. Tae whom I wrote about a few weeks back. His talk was titled: Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?

If you’ve read Daniel Pink’s Drive, read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, seen the movie Race to Nowhere, or heard Sir Ken Robinson speak or read his book The Element, a very similar theme emerges in all of them.

Virtual Art

I finally had some time to play with Google’s new “Art Project” site where you can virtually tour 17 art museum around the world. I’ve been very fortunate to have been to 10 of those, and it’s never the same as standing in front of an actual piece and viewing it in person. I’d rather my students actually go and see a piece of art in a local museum or gallery in person. Field trips are an essential part of learning, and while many schools are cutting back due to the recession, many can be had for free. Nonetheless, I have to say that it’s an amazing website and the virtual tours seem like their ‘street view’ in Google maps. Most of the top artworks are available, and if you have a google account, you can start your own collection and save them in the cloud. Unfortunately, there are a few disappointments. One of the biggest impacts I had viewing art was in Madrid, at the Museo Reina Sofia.  It was Picasso’s painting, Guernica. That painting is not available for viewing. Each museum only has a few wings you can tour through. Nonetheless, it’s a great tool for having children respond to art when you can’t get to the Moma in New York, for example. Once you get deep into using the navigation and information tools in the side bar, it’s easy to get caught up in it. There are audio and video guides and notes, but best of all for many of the featured works: you can zoom in possibly closer than you could in the museum without setting off any alarms. Some of the high-res pictures are great for looking at detailed brush strokes. This article from the Boston Globe today about schools cutting back on field trips is quite sad. If the objectives of the field trip are clear, a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom.

The folks at Google are planning to add more museums and wings. And, should the Seattle Art Museum be added, it would be great to have a virtual preview of a place and then have them see it for real in person.  This youtube video below is a good way to get an idea and get started. How else could this be used in education? I look forward to hearing your ideas. I can tell you that this year, the simple ability to project and use Google Earth has made the concepts of continent, ocean, country, and even smaller divisions, much easier for all second graders to grasp, not to mention geographic vocabulary.