In Case You Missed It: TED’s First TV Special

I enjoy the occasional TED talk, so it was great to find out that their first TV special that aired this past Tuesday on PBS centered around Education. The musician, John Legend hosted, and talks were given by several education leaders trying to emphasize some of the things needed in education.

Some of the speakers included Angela Duckworth on Grit, Bill Gates on Measures of Effective Teaching, Sir Ken Robinson on the need to start a revolution, Geoffrey Canada on education reform, and Pearl Arredondo telling her own personal story of grit. My favorite talk, though, was Rita F. Pierson’s. Her topic was about what I think matters most in education: Heart. It’s always about the connection and relationship you make with the kids, and your belief in them. You can watch her short talk below, or click the PBS link above to see them all.

The Language We Choose to Use with Students and Its Impact

Last week, as part of our parent speaker series, my school hosted Dr. McCurry. A clinical child psychologist, his talk was titled: The Anxiety Dance: A Parent’s Guide.  He spoke mainly about how we can either react or respond to behavior regardless of whether you were a parent or teacher. His talk provided us with several examples and strategies of how to help children who have anxiety whether or not it is clinically diagnosable.

A week before that, I attended part of Evergreen School’s speaker series’ presentation by Allison Master: Mindsets Revisited: Exploring the power of growth mindset and word choice in motivating children.

Every once in a while a book comes along that can be transformative. In terms of teaching, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset was one of those for me. Master who has co-authored a few articles with Dweck, began with a quick introduction defining the two kinds of mindsets that have been researched, fixed and growth. The word “mindsets” is becoming overused and can describe a lot of things not related to Dweck’s theory, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work, search using the terms “fixed,” “growth,” and “mindset” and that should get you going in the right direction.

One of the most important things I’ve learned abo about helping students manage anxiety or fostering growth mindsets is the language we use with them. What we say as parents and educators can be so influential. The feedback we give can impact a child for years to come.

There’s a huge difference between saying to a child, “You’re a good drawer!” and “You put a lot of effort into that drawing.” The first places value on the ability. The latter places the value on the effort or process. Which one do you think privileges actual learning? The language we choose to use with our students influence mindsets profoundly. A healthy dose of anxiety is normal, but it too places value on the process rather than the event. You acknowledge the event and feelings with a timestamp, like, “I can right now that you’re frustrated…” Then give the child agency to make a decision to move away from a fixed idea of their frustration to one that will pass.

A great book our faculty is reading is called, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Minds by Peter Johnston. It cites Dweck’s work and goes on to show how powerful the language we use can affect the way children perceive themselves. He uses the terms “fixed” and “dynamic” to describe the way we think about ourselves. Basically, learning is something that we can change and knowing that our brains are plastic and adaptable is  important. When a child is having an, “I’m stupid,” moment, it’s imperative to help the child recognize that it’s just a moment, not a fixed idea. A child with a growth mindset is going to have less anxiety, learn throughout life, and develop resilience. As adults, it’s natural to want to rescue a child, but as an adult you have to know the difference between pushing a child out of the way of a speeding car and doing their homework for them.

Furthermore, both Master and Johnston show the evidence of how language influences social and moral agency. If we put a fixed label on ourselves, it becomes very different to find the value in others and develop the empathy needed to work with those with differing views.

This works for adults too. I can learn from my colleagues and they can learn from me, but only if we are willing to see that. The next time you’re giving feedback to a child (or a peer), instead of a simple, “Great Job!” be specific.  For example, “I really like the choice of words in this paragraph.” If you can’t think of anything specific right away, at least praise the effort. “Wow! I can see you put a lot of work into that!”

I haven’t read McCurry’s book yet, but I highly recommend the other two. They might just change a life.

Learning About Giving

Students love field trips, and I do too. Visits have to be meaningful though, not just a fun day off from school. When planning trips, one needs to ask what  the children learning from the experience. There are many reasons to leave the classroom. A few include, extending the curriculum, participating in authentic learning, and being exposed to new ideas and resources.

I’ve always appreciated the size and scope of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but until this year, didn’t know that they had a visitor’s center adjacent to their headquarters here in Seattle. If you are ever in Seattle, I highly recommend a visit. It’s only about a 7 minute walk from the Space Needle, and it’s free. Our second grade classes visited last week.

The center is divided into 5 main areas:

Screenshot_4_15_13_11_19_AM

 

Voices

Hear voices from around the world and see portraits of our foundation family—employees, grantees, partners, beneficiaries, and our co-chairs.

Family & Foundation

Find out why and how the Gates family started this foundation, see examples of how we work around the world, and tell others what you’d do if you had your own foundation.

Partnerships

Discover how our partners are making progress on tough problems globally and locally, and weigh in on newsworthy issues.

Theater

Watch and listen to a rotating program of short videos offering a deeper perspective on our work.

Innovation & Inspiration

Solve real-world problems using your own best skills, and learn more about how people just like you are making a difference every day.

My favorite (and I think the children’s) was the innovation and inspiration area. The entire visitor’s center is designed to be interactive, but we could have spent hours in this particular room. Children are asked to think outside the box to design solutions to some of our problems. They also had several examples of products in the field on display such as shelter boxes and filtered drinking straws. They even had prototypes of items like Soccket, a soccer ball that captures energy during play. Enough to light an LED for a few hours or charge small batteries. The foundation pointed out that they weren’t the inventors of these innovations, but supported efforts like these to further their mission.

One of the neat features of this interactive room was that the children’s ideas or creations were displayed and shared instantly on large walls alongside ideas from previous visitors.

One of the other rooms emphasized partnerships. That while one person may have a brilliant idea and can have an incredible impact, it takes teamwork to achieve many of our goals. Our tour ended with our docent asking the children what they would do if they had a foundation. It was great to hear students come up with ideas that were outside the scope of the Gates Foundation, like animal welfare.

Before our visit, our class had a great discussion about needs and wants. The class agreed that basic needs included water, food, and shelter.

They had a harder time deciding at what time in one’s life one could care for themselves. They decided it could be both a need and want depending on the context. The other two topics that students grappled with were education and health. Several students had solid reasons why they were needs, wants, or somewhere in between.

We involve our students in service in many ways such as helping one another in our own classrooms, partnering with students outside our classroom, planting trees in a city park, and packing food at a local feeding center. Helping children see beyond themselves is not always easy, especially in 2nd grade, and some of these ideas come from the adults around them. It’s extremely powerful, however, when service learning ideas come from the students themselves. Hopefully, this visit inspired a few and planted some seeds that will help serve our immediate and global communities.

How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

“If We (Teachers) Can Be Replaced By A Computer Screen, …

…we should be.” Cathy Davidson

That was pretty much how the NAIS conference ended. It was the last slide for Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote. I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

For some teachers, it may seem a scary thought, but for most in attendance, it was validation that the we live in a very different world than we did even five years ago, and we need to adapt and prepare our kids for an unknown future.

Her most recent book is called, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. I recommend you visit her website and check out some notes from her talk here.

I am a big fan of Davidson’s work, and Davidson’s ideas resonate with me a lot, but I feel she can sometimes back herself into a corner with her beliefs, and rather than present her ideas with a more balanced approach, her arguments often come across polemical.

Take her statement, for example:

Move from critical thinking to creative contribution.

Both are important. I agree with Davidson that students need to build, make, do, invent, and so on, but they must be able to discern, analyze and evaluate while doing so. I think I know what she’s trying to say in that statement, but it still evoked a reaction from me.  Prior to mentioning this, Davidson talked about a website that appeared to be a great kid friendly resource on farm animals. It turns out that this website was an ad. We need to instill a healthy dose of skepticism in our students, prepare them to think critically.

I liked one of the tasks she gave the audience which was to list the …

Three Most Important Things We Can Do To Help Prepare Students For Their Future (Not Our Past)

Here were mine:

1) Develop a sense of wonder, play, and inquiry.

2) Learn how to find and use the resources needed to grapple with the questions they encounter.

3) To empathize, listen, network, and collaborate with humility and be able to discern between what is useful or purposeful, and what is superfluous or meaningless.

I know, there are a lot of things going on in the last one, but it was hard to come up with just three. I also had another response: Though I’m not religious, the following three things come from a prayer I learned as a child.

Serenity – to accept the things we cannot change

Courage – to change the things we can.

Wisdom – to know the difference.

 

I think we can prepare students for the first two of those, but the last one is something we have to learn on your own. I know I’m still working on it.

One of the things I enjoyed both this year in Philly and at home last year in Seattle was that the featured speakers were accompanied by “graphic recording artists” who captured visually, in real time, what was being said. Here’s a pdf of Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote.

Click for larger view.

All It Takes Is One Person

There were so many great ideas shared at the NAIS conference. Some were new, some validating, and some that challenged my own philosophy about education. While I need time to process and reflect, I also want to dive right in and push myself to try new things.

The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great” and the main keynote was Jim Collins, known prominently for his work “Good to Great.” He left the audience with 12 questions to ponder which I hope to do in the coming months. Rather than summarize his entire talk, which you can find here, I want to highlight something that stuck with me. He said that a great enterprise, be it a business or school had to pass three tests:

  1. Superior performance relative to your mission.
  2. Makes a distinctive impact on the world it touches. (If your school went away, would it leave an unfillable hole? Who would miss you truly and why?)
  3. Achieves lasting endurance, which means it’s great beyond any one leader. (Your school is not great if it cannot be great without you.)

Throughout the conference, I was reminded about these three things several people I heard speak. Here are two examples:

One of the general session speakers was Tererai Trent who grew up in what is now Zimbabwe. Married at 11 and mother of three by 18, her biggest dream was to get an education. She earned a doctorate in interdisciplinary evaluation. With the strong belief that education is the way out of poverty and a way to stop the mistreatment of women, she wanted to start a school back in the village where she grew up. As of today, she has helped build 8 schools.

Another session I attended was led by Lee Hirsch who made the documentary “Bully.” You can see the positive impact the film has been making at CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 page here.

Both these speakers set examples that pass the three tests mentioned by Jim Collins. Whether their intention was to impact one life or hundreds of thousands, their mission remained focused. It was clear to me that they let their projects become bigger than themselves, big enough to endure without them.

Both speakers did not do it alone. Tererai Trent, for example, received help from Oprah. Their dreams of change, however, were their own, and their belief that this change was achievable never seemed to wane.

The kids we teach are all dreamers. For lack of a better analogy, those dreams are like seeds. Maybe we play a role in planting some of those seeds. Maybe we don’t. Whether those dreams impact one person or many, part of our jobs as educators is to nourish those seeds and help them grow.

Inspire Life-long Learners by Being One

Today, I had the added privilege of presenting at the conference and was both humbled and honored with the opportunity to do so. I’m also amazed at the kinds of innovative success stories that are being shared. I am learning plenty!

Needless to say, after day 1, I’m completely exhausted, but I thought I’d try writing about the first session I attended: ePortfolios – Teaching Children to Curate and Manage Their Digital Footprints.

Right now, student work is celebrated on bulletin boards, when parents visit classroom events, uploaded to the class website, and by sharing it with each other.

According to the Garrison Forest School in Maryland, students often ended up with huge stacks of paper. But before embarking on their project, they wanted to make sure there was purpose to creating ePortfolios. The lower school team had very compelling readongs. One of their considerations was time. They needed something simple so that students the work of scanning documents, etc didn’t take so long.

Then, they had to find on a format. One that would be customizable and easy to use. They considered google sites (which they used at their middle school), edublogs, or Evernote, and , for the lower school, they decided Evernote was the simplest.

I think it’s important to learn how to control your public profile as well as to highlight your work digitally. One of the things I really liked about this presentation was that they recognized that first graders would need help from adults to curate their digital portfolio. The part I liked best was that the children would use these to showcase their work, assess it, and learn to choose which pieces of work to include.

Giving children some autonomy is necessary to its success, and when children choose their work, the idea of growth becomes evident to them.

The group did a marvelous job presenting and gave compelling reasons which you can read here: bit.ly/NAISePort

There are challenges to this of course, but once you have a common vision of why ePortfolios are important, these difficulties will naturally dissipate.

As I mentioned, It’s been a long day, but I hope to share with you the main points of my presentation and the experience leading up to it, Jim Collins’ keynote address, and the final panel of four voices, each with a take on youth culture and social media.

Tomorrow, I look forward to hearing from the filmmaker Lee Hirsch of the documentary “Bully.” He’ll be interviewed on AC360 on CNN tonight. I’m also looking forward to hearing Tererai Trent’s story of overcoming obstacles and turning oppression into opportunities in a session called, “Education is a Human Right.” I will also be attending sessions on purposeful use of technology in classrooms and Cathy Davidson who will try to convince us that education needs a paradigm shift.

Tech Tools are Great, but Nothing Beats Face to Face Interactions

I remember at time when there were classes for specific products like MS Word. Apart from very specific programs that are fairly intricate, those days have long past. With new tools and apps arriving daily, and new ones getting updates by the minute, the idea of teaching a certain technology seems a little dated. Unless of course one is talking about coding, but even then, the most industrious and resourceful student will be able to figure out a lot on her own. 

Students need to know when and how to use technology that is appropriate to the work they are doing. They need to learn how to find out on their own, be discerning of the information they get, and try things out several times until they get it right. 

It’s not that google, bing, yahoo, or something else is better than the other, but which one you’re more comfortable with or which one has more features that you personally use. Same with web browsers, office documents, creative platforms, and others. It also depends on the group of people you’re working with and what tool set they’re using. 

If a student needs to use a spreadsheet for whatever reason, they should be able to figure out whether excel, google docs, numbers, or another program would be right. They would then most likely teach themselves how to use it. 

I’m really excited about the opportunity to present at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference in a few days. I’m presenting with colleagues from Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. 

Being from different regions, we relied on various technologies to plan and communicate. I was beginning to think of the different ways we have interacted and the different tools we used up to tonight. 

Twitter – Before meeting my colleagues in person, I found them on twitter first. It wasn’t until 3 months after that I met them in person. 

Email – This is a pretty standard form of communication, but we rarely used this as we wanted to share documents and it was easier to house them somewhere (we used google drive and dropbox) rather than send version after version back and forth. 

Google Hangouts – Video Conferencing has been around for a long time, but for people like teachers who don’t have boardrooms or expensive equipment, google hangouts is free and worked like a charm. It even worked on my smart phone. 

Google Presentation – when we were first building our slides, we wanted one single document for our draft. This let us create the bones of our presentation without having to worry about several of us working on separate documents. This helped reduce any redundancy in our collaborative efforts. 

Power Point – While most people shudder at this tool for a presentation, it’s not the tool’s fault. Most people don’t use it well. The slides are there to enhance your presentation. To help make what you say clear. Any text on the slide is for your audience to read, not your written outline. Text needs to be big enough for people to read. Graphs have to enhance the data you’re describing. Power Point is a great tool, it’s just that too many people fall into the trap of using its built in templates. Start with a blank canvas and know what you want to say. 

iMovie – we just needed to trim a video by a few seconds.

image editing – we needed to make some images appear less pixilated, shape others differently, remove backgrounds, etc.

I’m sure there were other tools we used, but the point is that none of us went to a class to learn any of these tools. We picked ones that worked for our group – for most of us, google hangouts was new. We used the opportunity, not only to video conference, but to learn how to use some of its other widgets by playing. 

And of course, none of this replaces face to face interactions, which is why I’m excited about seeing everyone I’ve collaborated with on Wednesday when we make our final revisions before Thursday’s presentation. 

I think the same goes with kids. Face to face interactions are the most important. Technology is just a tool to help get a job done. Nonetheless these tools are crucial to extending the learning process and teachers have to be judicious in discerning when to use them for maximum benefit to students. 

Data: Is it Reliable? And What do We do with it?

It’s been almost a couple of months since my last post, and I find myself thinking of data again.

Earlier this month, the Gates Foundation released its cumulative findings on its 3-year Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) research project. They recommend a balanced approach which included observations and student perception surveys in addition to achievement test scores. If you look at the data in the report, much can be gleaned, yet it’s easy to see that effective teaching is a very complex thing to measure.

Also in the local news this week, teachers from a two different Seattle Public Schools, for various reasons, have stated they are going to boycott the district standardized test known as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).

There are many reasons standardized tests cause anxiety among students, teachers, parents, and school leaders. Often they are used as sorting mechanisms (admissions into schools, teaching effectiveness, and putting students on a certain track are just a few examples). Yet, if one approaches the data from these assessments with more purpose (to set new goals, to inform ones teaching, provide meaningful feedback, or guide learning), these measures can be useful.

Data today is abundant, but is it the right data? How data is collected, analyzed, and interpreted; how reliable it is; and what we do with it can make all the difference. Though the Gates Foundation and those Seattle Public School teachers are doing it differently, I’m glad there are many out there asking these questions.

Is Quantifying Teacher Performance Akin to Flipping A Coin?

Last week, on the way home from school, I tuned into a story on the radio titled: “Seattle Releases First Teacher Ratings Based on Student Performance.” Data is great, but if you paid attention to the elections a few weeks ago, there were two kinds of math going on. Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog predicted 50/50 states. Karl Rove’s analysis of the data had him flummoxed. The difference was that Rove was emotionally attached, was eager to win, and for some reason his analysis of the same polls was way off. Alternatively, Silver simply plugged numbers into complex algorithms.

Mathematicians have noted that test scores and teacher performance don’t necessarily have a strong correlation, yet an incredible weight and cost is attributed to these standardized tests. Math professor Johh Ewing says, “You might as well look at all the teachers and flip a coin and those that get heads, say, are good, and those that get tails are bad, and it’s not much different from using one year of growth to measure teachers,”

Ewings paper, “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by Data,” Looks at the potential pitfall of trying to create Value Added Measures to teacher evaluation.

Like the election examples earlier, we often attach a lot of emotion to the data creating a lot of noise. This noise had the potential to lead to bias. When a teacher says, “But I’ve done this for 20 years. I know this works,” it is evident that experience plays an important role. But is there bias involved. During those 20 years, did that teacher ever once control the experiment by not utilizing a particular skill? If so was the result the same, better, worse. Without trying to control for various things, how does one really know if what you do works. Is it just a feeling or is it based on empirical data.

Finally, there are so many things that make a good teacher: relationships with students, high expectations, integrity, care, leadership, collaboration, etc. Yet all of these traits can’t be tested for.

Standardized test scores are a reality and here to stay. As long as graduate schools use test scores as a tool to help with admissions, and undergraduate schools do the same, high schools and middle schools won’t have much of a choice. Elementary schools just follow.

There’s a dark side to this. Children as early as Pre-K are getting tutored in test preparation. Like the qualities of teachers, students have many amazing strengths and skills. However just because they struggle with test taking, potential doors my be closed without even giving the child a chance to show the brilliance that lies within.

And what about those 21st Century Skills – Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, etc. Will teachers drop integrating teaching these skills in order to meet the demands of the test scores? I hope not.

Does Your Curriculum Allow Enough Play?

Aside

“The best questions are the ones that create the most uncertainty.”

The quote, by Beau Lotto comes from a recent TED talk called: Science is for everyone, kids included. It’s about the importance of play. Uncertainty and ambiguity are naturally uncomfortable for humans, but he says that play has helped us step into that zone of uncertainty. Science experiments are in fact games (play with rules), and scientist and creative types have always embraced this while others have been a little more wary.

In this talk, he describes working with a group of 8-10 year olds in developing an experiment from a question the students had. They are also the youngest group to have a peer-reviewed paper published. It’s an example of experiential learning at its best and includes a lot of great educational topics: risk/failure/problem-based learning/collaboration/inquiry/intrinsic motivation/etc. He also brings out Amy O’Toole (now age 12) one of the original researchers to speak about the project as well.

Here’s a link to the paper.

What Does Censoring Children’s Literature do to Critical Thinking?

It saddened me to read in the news that a book by one of my favorite authors, Patricia Polacco was restricted in a Utah school district on Monday.

Patricia Polacco is a prolific children’s writer and for some of my readers we engage in an author study featuring her books. She tends to write from personal experiences about family and friends and her themes vary widely. Some of her most famous books include:

Thank you Mr. Falker, a book about a young girl with dyslexia who realizes her potential thanks to a fifth grade teacher named Mr. Falker.  The epilogue is quite touching when you realize that the girl with dyslexia is the author.

Pink and Say, a book about two boys (one black and one white) during the Civil War. Another touching book.

Mr. Lincoln’s Way, a book about overcoming bullying.

Thundercake, a book about how the author overcame her fear of thunderstorms.

The book that was banned was called In Our Mothers’ House, which is a story about family or three raised by two mothers. I always worry about children’s books that may contain ‘issues’. Often they can be preachy and end up not being very good literature. This book is simply a good story. We had it in our library, so I read it to my students.

I asked them why they thought this book might be banned for children, and it was quite refreshing to hear their responses. The overwhelming response was, “I think some adults don’t think children can handle stories with sad endings.” Only two children identified the two moms as the possible reason and one child said, “I think it might be about the two moms because in some places, they just don’t get it yet.”

I try really hard not to provide any answers for my students. They need to analyze and think for themselves. I enjoy opportunities to do this. If books are censored, how can children develop critical thinking skills? This doesn’t mean I need to read every book on a banned list, but it’s important to get kids thinking.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/utah-school-district-rest_n_1564118.html

Innovation and Change

In education, when the words ‘innovation’ and ‘change’ are mentioned, many teachers roll their eyes. These words are almost seen as ‘bad words.’  There are several reasons for this:

1) The words are over used (the way the word ‘epic’ is used these days to describe every summer blockbuster coming…even worse is ‘most epic’).

2) In education, it isn’t easy to change or innovate.

3) The words don’t mean the same thing to different people.

I recently read Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner.

Near the beginning of the book, Wagner writes about a group of leaders at Olin College who were asked to discuss how to create environments that support innovators. A senior executive from IBM said, “It’s a lot easier to name the things that stifle innovation like rigid bureaucratic structures, isolation, and a high-stress work environment.”

Well, that could describe most work environments, especially schools.

Wagner describes innovation as the place where motivation, expertise, and creative thinking skills come together. With motivation being far more important than skill or expertise. In his previous book, The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner lists essential skills that students are going to need to be successful in the world. While these aren’t new things, and the seem like common sense, they are definitely things that schools do not emphasize enough, if at all. In that book, the 7 survival skills listed were:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

Collaboration by Networks and Leading by Influence

Agility and Adaptability

Initiative and Entrepreneurship

Effective Oral and Written Communication

Accessing and Analyzing Information

Curiosity and Imagination

Anyone looking at this list would say those are great things. They make perfect sense. But sadly, most students across the country are not getting opportunities to engage in learning that require them to use those skills. There’s still a lot of emphasis on getting the one right answer. As Wagner further explored innovation, he found that his list needed a few more skills:

perseverance

a willingness to experiment

take calculated risks and tolerate failure

have the capacity for ‘design thinking’

According to Wagner, these can all be learned. He makes a strong case about letting kids make mistakes so they can learn from them and develop resilience. He criticizes the “tiger mom” method that doesn’t allow play or have any room for failure, and he criticizes ‘helicopter’ parents that indulge and insulate their children from failure. “Neither kind is likely to produce innovators.”

So how can teachers create environments for innovation when their own working environment doesn’t promote that kind of independence? School change seems to happen at a glacial rate. Most don’t have the capacity for “design thinking.” That’s where you identify a problem, and you set about trying to solve it. First, you experiment. Consider this first experiment a prototype. It may fail at first, but the idea is to keep refining that solution, getting feedback, experimenting further with more trial and error, and eventually end up with something better, more efficient, and often more beautiful. Schools work on yearly calendars. Once the wheels on the bus get going in the fall, heaven forbid that one look at a problem during the school year and try to make it better. The time schools usually take to decide something new is at the end of each year. Why? Because changes during the school year can be too disruptive. But disruption is often the outcome of good innovation.

Innovation, in this sense isn’t simply about trying something new. It’s not about whimsy. Innovation should be purposeful. Being an Innovator requires one to challenge the status quo and constantly ask questions. Innovation is about looking at ways to simplify, make things more efficient, and make them more affordable.

Creating Innovators is a great book, with excellent stories and suggestions for parents and educators. There are many books about innovation, but this one appealed to me as it focused on how to foster these skills in our youth. Hopefully, I’ll write a little more about this book in the near future as Wagner provides ways to help foster innovation, and he also explores school change. Again, ‘change’ isn’t a bad word, if it is done with meaningful intent.

Speaking of change, I’ll leave with this quote:

“To know about change is to know about inertia, which is to say that sometimes the status quo needs a wakeup call. You can’t wait for success, you have to kick start it.”

(Fullan, 2009)

How to Pluralize the Word Octopus

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This week, my students were puzzled with the plural of the word octopus. They campe across this question looking up various ocean animals. When they looked the word up in the dictionary, both octopuses and octopi were listed as plurals.

“Which one is it?” asked a student.

“Good question. I really don’t know,” I replied.

An interesting debate emerged among a few of the students when I asked them for the reason they had sided with one of the plural choices, each gave a reasonable response.

Etymology can be fascinating. As it turns out, octopus entered the English language in the 1700s and therefore took on the normal plural -es. Thus ‘octopuses.’ Apparently, grammarians at the time were trying to make English more predictable by using Latin endings and started using ‘octopi.’ Latin majors will argue about this as well. Something about 4th declension nouns, but I never took Latin, so it’s all Greek to me. Speaking of Greek, technically, the word octopus originated from Greek, and another group of grammarians pluralized it as ‘octopodes.’ This last form is found only in British English only and probably should be avoided.

Where did I learn this? You Tube!

That’s right. Directly from an associate editor at Merriam-Webster Online. The website is a nice resource and have several great videos that are perfect for kids who love words. They’re under two minutes long and a quick and easy way to get an expert into the classroom. The kids loved this short clip (especially the few that insisted on ‘octopuses’). When questions originates with the children, their motivation naturally increases. The resources available today are quite remarkable. The difficulty is sifting through it all.

One of my favorite titles in their series is, “Irregardless: It is in fact a real word (but it doesn’t mean you should use it.”

I think “octopodes” falls under that category. One of the things I love about teaching is learning new things with my students. Below is the video if you want to learn a little more.

Should Educators in the Lower Grades Consider Eliminating Homework?

Challenge Success is a project out of Stanford University’s School of Education. Its mission is to “work with schools, parents and youth to develop and implement action plans to improve student well-being and engagement with learning.”

Recently, they announced that they are working on a series of white papers that evaluate and summarize the body of research in a given topic in order to make the research more accessible and to offer suggestions for educators and parents. Their first paper is on homework and rather than take one side of the argument or the other, they try to answer both viewpoints using the available research. Part of their conclusion included the following:

“Much of the research supporting and refuting the benefits of homework seems to be contradictory, and some of the arguments actually have no research to support their claims. Given that much of the research points to little or no benefits of homework, we urge educators to take a hard look at their current practices and policies. Some educators in the lower grades might consider eliminating homework altogether, and just asking students to spend time reading for pleasure (which is positively connected to achievement), or allow them extra time for play and time with family….”

The research on homework is indeed ambiguous, so it’s nice to have a group that has the time to look at the research more closely. Over the past three years I have looked at my current practices (the policies are outside of my control) and considered eliminating homework (short of reading for pleasure), but the reception of this has been mixed. I’m glad that there is more support for what I’ve been advocating.

The suggestions they offer to teachers and parents to make homework more engaging and meaningful are also good.

An example of a recommendation for parents: “Parents can help organize [students'] time or prioritize assignments, but when parents deliver forgotten assignments to school or step in to rescue a child at the last minute, they may be denying the child the opportunity to develop resilience and fortitude.”

For many adults, finding work/life balance can be tricky. Especially if one is truly engaged and finds meaning in their work. An article published in today’s NYTimes about a course at Google to help their employees achieve that balance comes as no surprise. It would be nice to ensure that our students begin to develop a healthy balance?

How Rational Are Our Choices?

A rational person might take a few light reads when they go on vacation, but instead I chose to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. One downside to a Kindle is you don’t really get a sense of the physicality of a book. Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist, won the Nobel for economics in 2002. His book delves into his life’s research.

First, he describes the two different systems at play in our brains: 1) Fast thinking, which is automatic, subconscious, emotional, and requires very little effort. 2) Slow thinking which is conscious, requires much effort, is more logical, and is deliberate. He provides plenty of evidence of why we might overestimate human judgement, and in general, we do not make very rational choices. In test after test, human subjects mostly fail to think statistically and don’t do the math. The final part of his book discusses his research on happiness. Our minds on that topic are also divided. We can measure our happiness by our experiences, but what dominates our own perception of happiness is how we remember the peak and valleys of the pain and pleasures.

It’s not a light read like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s book that pieces together research of other people. Rather, it’s an intriguing account (and sometimes memoir) of his own research on how we think. I highly recommend it. Thinking Fast and Slow is a difficult book to summarize or review, so I’ll simply link to a couple of of them:

Here is the WSJ’s review and the NYTimes review.

There’s one simple math question in his book used as an example that I like:

A ball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat cost a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Over 50% of Harvard and M.I.T. students got this wrong. Why? They did not bother to check. They relied on their intuition that happened to deceive them.

After writing about our divided brains with two systems, Kahneman says that these systems of thinking aren’t really separate but it’s important to be aware of those two systems. It’s amazing how irrational some of our own decisions are. Kahneman suggests that we approach our thoughts as an outsider at times. It will help us lower our overconfidence and reduce many of our own invisible biases. As we become more aware of how we think and when we should tap into deeper thinking, I hope we can help our students to do the same. 

Here’s a TED talk he gave a couple of years ago.

Are Innovative Breakthroughs Accidental or Do They Require Hard Work?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Slam Poetry.” My early experiences with slam poetry were not very memorable and usually consisted of overwrought and angry performances. The point they were trying to make was lost on me.

Then, last year, Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, presented at TED. I was immediately captivated by the words she wrote, the way she organized them, and the way she delivered them. In an instant, my preconceptions about spoken poetry had changed.

Those attending the Thursday session of the NAIS conference were lucky enough to hear her as the closing speaker of the day. Speaking to educators she began with a poem about learning and growing up in New York (it was much more than that).

After her poem, she addressed school leaders about the theme of the conference: innovation. Innovation wasn’t simply bringing something new to the class each day. Innovation required breakthroughs. She described that there were basically two types of breakthroughs. The first kind is one that is accidental. They’re breakthroughs that happen in a moment, or occur when you have an epiphany. Something that fundementally changes they way you thought – a breakthrough that alters a paradigm you once held on to strongly. The other kind of breakthrough she talked about is the kind that requires an incredible amount of effort and time – something you work very hard towards before reaching that breakthrough. Once you get there, these breakthroughs can change your life. Sarah also talked about how children tend to have much of the first kind of breakthroughs, those aha moments. Adults, however, start to forget about accidental breakthroughs and begin to value only those breakthroughs that require hard work. We value that we’ve made on our own because we recognize the hard work to get there. We also tend to dismiss a lot of our own outside-the-box ideas or those that are brought to us by others. Though we embrace children who ask “What if…” questions, we are quick to discredit adults who ask the same or have differing ideas. Rather than be open to a potential breakthrough, adults tend to shut those ideas down and move on with the paradigm they are already comfortable with. Schools across the country are notorious for this, making education reform very difficult. I am not naive. I don’t believe that every new idea warrants merit. But a willingness to listen to them before dismissing them is extremely important.

Sarah Kay also talked about her very first teaching experiences, and how she began from stumbling, falling, and failing to realizing how to deconstruct something that was second nature to her into smaller bits. She claims that whether they are breakthroughs that come through rigorous work, or are accidental, we as educators need to find the balance. We need to

“equip our students  with the skills they will need to overcome obstacles and meet challenges – and we do that through innovation. Through teaching them new ways to approach old problems and old questions. But it’s incredibly important that in doing that, we also make sure to teach them to stay open to the idea of accidental breakthrough – things that they cannot prepare for – only keeping themselves open to the possibility. And so, to do that, we have to live that ourselves.”

She talked about being flexible and the learning that happens in-between. A teacher may have spent hours preparing the best lesson, but if a student steers the class down a meaningful “rabbit hole,” you just might want to go there. For the learning that occurs during those teachable moments are some of the best.

Sarah Kay then ended with a poem about the first person who taught her what it meant to be an educator: her elementary school principal. It’s an incredible 7 minute performance and I highly recommend viewing it.

It’s amazing how the culture of sharing is catching on. For those who were not available to attend the conference that day, so many of these resources are made available. By clicking on the image below, you can view her entire 25 minute keynote.

Are Tights for Girls or Boys?

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Image

from AP images

Our fifth graders performed an excellent version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV today. It’s always impressive to see what students are capable of and how their teachers bring out the best in them.

When you think of Shakespeare, or at least look at the picture to the right, do you immediately conjure up images of masculinity? I don’t know if wearing tights, putting on make-up, or dressing in frills would be considered so today, but it certainly was a while ago. Even Marueen Dowd of the New York Times chimed in about masculinity in an opinion piece this past weekend.

Studies in gender differences, for many reasons can be quite controversial. These days, a lot is written and discussed about how best to teach boys or girls in schools. The more we learn about the brain, the more we are finding that there are measurable neurological differences between the genders. Many experts such as Dr. Larry Cahill who spoke to local teachers a few years ago have been working to understand these differences. Here’s a link to a 2005 Scientific American article Dr. Cahill wrote.

Some of the controversy lies in the potential to be sexist, to stereotype, and to forget that not all boys (nor their brains) are the same. Clearly, from looking at portraits of historical figures, the way we dress is influenced by society. What about the sports we enjoy or how we learn? I become wary when book titles generalize and make either/or statements or over-interpret results. As the information becomes more readily available, how it informs how we teach is incredibly important, however, we can’t just lump kids into one category or another. Each child is unique and the most important thing for an educator is to build a relationship with their student and learn how to serve each one best.

Recently, at edcampis, Rosetta Lee from the Seattle Girls’ School shared a great web tool called ‘gender remixer‘ that takes commercials of ‘boy’ toys and ‘girl’ toys and lets you mix the audio with the video. It’s actually quite fun (and disturbing).

Below is an example of one of the mash-ups. The question remains about gender differences: how much is neurological, and how much is environmental? 

Bill Gate’s Keynote at the 2012 NAISAC Annual Conference

Below is that video of Bill Gates’ Keynote Address at the NAIS Annual Conference on Thursday, March 1, 2012. You can read the transcript here.

Bill Gates talks about four main trends in his speech:

1) Creating engaging and interactive ways of learning rather than using the traditional text book.

2) Using the internet to find, use, and share resources among teachers. A new way to collaborate between and among teachers.

3) Using social networks in positive ways both to enhance the learning of teachers and students.

4) Using technology, game play, etc. to provide immediate feedback for teachers and students.

Bill Gates mentions that these are the things he hopes he’ll be seeing in 10 years across the country.However, according to Mr. Gates, it is already happening at leading schools. How much of a leader in these areas are your teachers and your schools?

Having a network and being connected can be a great thing. I was teaching on the day Bill Gates gave his keynote, but  was able to follow some of the conversation via twitter and recently alerted that the video and transcript of his speech were now available, something Mr. Gates had promised to share.

Continuing to Learn

“When it feels like your brain hurts, you know you’re learning,” is something I say to my students from time to time.

I want to reflect and immediately share more on NAISAC12 and EdCampIS, but honestly, my brain is hurting a little bit. I have learned an immense amount and met so many incredibly passionate educators that I think I simply need some time to take it all in and process what I’ve learned.

For now, I couldn’t be happier with the success and energy of EdCampIS which wouldn’t have been possible with all of the participants, many of whom spent an extra day in Seattle to make this happen.

Thanks to one of my colleagues who helped organize the event, Jac de Haan, you can get a quick summary of the day through photos and quotes by checking out the main page of the edcampis website.

What is a Tweet-Up?

I just got back from a ‘tweet-up’ tonight at the Pike Pub & Brewery. It was an interesting concept of gathering folks who use twitter to share and learn from each other. Many thanks to Greg Bamford for organizing this event tonight. I still consider myself a neophyte when it comes to twitter, but in the year that I started, I’ve met incredible people, had new opportunities, and learned a lot.


When I say that I’ve met people – I mean physically. And tonight was another opportunity to turn my virtual learning network into a more personal one. Using twitter, you often see a small thumbnail of someone’s face, but meeting them in person is so much better.

The only downside is that they live in Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina, and other states.

Where is the school with educators that are this engaged in leading the change efforts? I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t it be great to have a school with all these educators working in the same place? I’m not ready to start my own school, but I’m ready to dream.

And if you think twitter is for the young, you are completely wrong. Twitter is for all ages and is simply a mindset. Sign up and try it for 21 days. I promise you, you will learn something.

Moving from Congeniality to Collegiality

I recently read an article, “Getting to No: Building Collegiality in Schools,” by Rob Evans in the most recent issue of Independent School. It draws from his book, Seven Secrets of a Savvy School Leader,”  which I just started to read.

This article resonated with me because it’s the kind of collaboration, collegiality, and work with my fellow teachers that motivates me. For the most part, we do a great job of this at my school, but this article reminds me that we can always do more.

Evans mentions many obstacles including the structural ones, personal ones, and the culture so many schools have where they avoid conflict. From my experience, the culture he refers to in schools is very strong, and while it is changing, I wish it would change more rapidly. Teachers are getting better at conflict: respectfully dissenting and listening to opposing voices. What teachers need to get better at is finding the common ground, figuring out how it meets our school’s mission and strategic plan, taking action, and moving forward. Otherwise we return to the “culture of niceness” and nothing changes.

As Evans states in his article,

“[Students] will need to be self-motivated to keep learning and changing and will also need to be adept at working with people from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives. If educators are to help students develop these skills, the argument goes, they themselves must be able to model them both in their teaching and in the ways they think and talk about their work.”

Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?

iBook Author App and “New” iPad Textbooks – Meh

I want to disclose two things before you continue reading this post:

1) I am not a fan of textbooks.

2) I am a fan of Apple products.

One reason I’m not big on textbooks is that it is often limiting, and the content is often produced in a linear way, even when it doesn’t have to be. Don’t get me wrong, I think text books can be a useful resource, but they should be used sparingly, and teachers need to customize their content with what works for their students. The few interactive texts that they are selling have some neat features, but they’re nothing to scream about. Resourceful students and teachers have been able to get that kind of content for free on the web. They’re better than the textbooks I used in high school, but the classes I learned the most were ones where teachers made us read articles in newspapers, periodicals, and literature.

The part that excited me most about Apple’s announcement was the “ibook author” that one could download for free from Apple. I played around with it this weekend to see if I could easily create ebooks, but more to see if it would be easy for kids 8 years old and up to use. The answer to that question is yes.

Here’s the problem: we’re not an Apple computer school, let alone an iPad school. A few of each float around, but not in a supply that would be accessible to most kids. One of the reasons I like Apple products is because they often just work right. They are well-designed in the sense that they do what they are supposed to do simply – use other software if you want to do more complicated things. The work well (most of the time), but that’s often only when you play within their own ecosystem.

If a student or I create an ebook (whether or not it has any interactive features), I want them and their peers to access these books in a myriad of formats such as a web browsers, Kindle, any pc or tablet. I can’t see myself spending time creating ebooks for my students that only work on one device unless a school adopts that device whole heartedly, and I don’t think right now they should. It’s too soon. There are many things great about an iPad. I’d be happy to get rid of the pcs in my room, reclaim that work space for students and have them use tablets at their tables, the rug, etc. Still, for little kids, I think it’s too soon. Perhaps, when I find the time, I’ll post a pros and cons list from what I’ve found in using an iPad in the classroom.

It’s promising for starters, and a bit more engaging than a standard textbook (which as I’ve mentioned I’m not a fan of), but for now, it’s just another delivery method for standard textbooks. It’d be great to have me or my students create ibooks, but with no macs and 1 iPad in my class, I’ll stick to creating web resources, and hopefully having kids create web resources for each other, as well. Those they can access anywhere online. I may change my mind, but for now, I’m underwhelmed.

You can watch Apple’s video/ad below.

Value of Teachers and the 1%

Last week, the nytimes listed several job markets where one would find the top 1% in this country. It also went on to list the degrees in which the top 1% graduated from. It was interesting that they were also running articles on the value of teachers based on the Harvard/Columbia study that came out recently:

Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain

Value of Teachers

And an interesting debate about value and measuring teacher effectiveness followed.

The 1% articles talked about the various professions. In the print version, teaching didn’t even make the graphic. On the online graphic, they were there, but a clear side note mentioned that teachers in 1% households were there because of marriage.

And here’s What the Top 1% Majored In. My undergrad degree is in biology, but after that I chose to pursue education (not listed). These two letters responding to those graphs, one by a teacher, and one by a father of two teachers say a lot.

There’s something amiss in the way teachers are compensated. I’m not pro- or anti- union, but see the benefits and challenges with both systems when it comes to teaching. There are districts, charter schools, and independent schools trying a number of schemes and some doing better than others. It be great to look at all the possibilities, find out which ones are working best, try and guess why, and start to try it out. That’s how innovation happens; You look at all the ideas out there, develop your own compensation prototype, take a risk (a calculated one, of course), analyze, modify, and keep looping back refining and revising the prototype. There’s a good chance it’s not going to work right away and will ruffle a few feathers, but I think it’s worth the risk. As long as one acknowledges and learns from mistakes, something good will eventually emerge. That’s part of what innovation is all about. School culture in general is invisible, deep, complex, and very conservative – it’s not an easy task.