About amcgrann

2nd Grade teacher in Seattle, Washington.

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 Disruptive Questions Necessary for Innovation?

“I don’t really see any innovative teaching around here.” That was something a parent said four years ago during a meeting regarding our school’s mission. Given that our school’s mission statement begins with, “Through innovative teaching…,” the comment made by that parent stuck with me, and innovation in education has been one of the areas that has become an interest of mine. I keep reading and hearing about the necessity of schools to change. Not just in terms big reform movements that we’re seeing across the nation, but in terms of fundamentally changing the way we teach to adapt to the way children learn today. Yet, the culture of schools is so deep – from the expectations of parents to the way we teach; from the way policies are set to the way schools are run – there is so much resistance to change. So often books are read and conferences are attended by teachers and school leaders, they come back excited and say, “…yeah I got some great nuggets out of that. I can’t wait to share them.” The new ideas are usually shared briefly if at all, and then everyone returns to the way things used to be done.

I just finished reading  The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Dyer, Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen (author of Disrupting Class). 

The book’s introduction claims that “a recent IBM poll of fifteen hundred CEOs identified creativity as the number-one ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”

The book emphasizes that to innovate, it requires courage. First, courage to challenge the status quo, and second, courage to take risks. It also states that innovators “have a passion for inquiry.” They are always asking questions. Asking why once isn’t enough. Continuing to probe until a novel (usually efficient and well-designed) solution emerges is what innovators do. Asking insightful ‘what if’ questions is just as important.

This book’s main claim is that innovation is not genetic. It can be developed. If so, how do we develop these in our students (challenging every child to be courageous and curious are part of my school’s mission). If most of the stakeholders in a child’s education aren’t developing these innovation skills themselves, then what chance do our students have? Without going into too much detail, the 5 skills according to this book are:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Networking
  5. Experimenting

I’ve heard from educational leaders and teachers from schools of all shapes and sizes that school culture is deep, and those who have challenge the status quo continue face an uphill climb. Most prefer to do what they’ve always done. I’m glad I work with colleagues that continue to ask good questions and have the courage to ask why. In the end it’s best for our students.

My favorite quote comes from the chapter on experimenting.

” I haven’t failed…I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

– Thomas Edison

I asked earlier in this post about how to develop these skills in students. In a couple of week’s, Tony Wagner has a new book that comes out: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. I can’t wait.


Our All-School Service Learning Day

One of my favorite days of the school year is our all-school service learning day. For the past four years, our school has gone back to the same section of a park in Seattle (Seward Park) as stewards and spent the day pulling weeds, planting trees, learning about nature, and having fun.

Let me begin by saying: being in the cold unrelenting rain for four hours is not my idea of fun (some kids, though, had a blast!). Our service learning day is one of my favorite days because all the students work together with faculty, staff, and parents to make a small positive impact in our community. It requires hard work and team work. You only have to watch a second grade student trying to dig a hole with an adult-sized shovel to know whether or not effort was involved. Service learning is about connecting the learning that occurs in the classroom with real-world issues in the community.

My students define a community as a place where people live, work, play, and solve problems. In my class, we’ve explored a neighborhood community, colonial communities, scientific communities, and currently we’re looking at ancient Egyptian communities. Regardless of the structure or time period, that simple definition of a community holds true and what a great way to participate both as a school community and as members of our wonderful city.

There are a works of children’s fiction that are great for this day. The Lorax by Dr. Suess is an obvious one. Miss. Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is another. My favorite, though, and the one I chose today is called The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Inspired by those who advocated for the High Line in Manhattan to be reused as a park instead of demolition, the story tells of a little boy whose curiosity leads him to a little patch of garden on an elevated railroad track. He carefully tends to his garden realizing that his efforts inspire others to join him.

It’s always hard to know what kinds of learning spark passions in certain kids. If this school-wide project helps to ignite only one student to become a leader and make a positive impact on their community later in life, what’s a little cold rain? We live in Seattle after all.

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.

My Take-Aways from the Tiger Mom

The closing keynote at the NAIS conference was Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A year ago, the press used this book to paint a portrait of a villainous mother. The media generalized the differing parenting styles of Chinese and Americans making inflammatory statements in their headlines such as the Wall St. Journal’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”

I haven’t shared my thoughts on whether or not I found value to her talk, as my opinions about Ms. Chua’s memoire continue to vacillate. Though cynical about her keynote address, I wanted to approach it with an open mind. As she began speaking, she started with a great story about how the press storm caught her by surprise. I even started feeling for her when she described being on the Today Show and the first thing Meredith Viera asked was, “Are you a monster?”

Unfortunately she followed that story with one about a trip to DAVOS that seemed more about name dropping than it did about teaching or parenting. And so even though she may have ended up with more negative press than she initially bargained for, it certainly helped her sell her book and my sympathies began to wane. Interestingly, one of the names she dropped was Larry Summers who disagreed with her by saying,

“In a world where things that require discipline and steadiness can be done increasingly by computers, is the traditional educational emphasis on discipline, accuracy and successful performance and regularity really what we want?”

Mr. Summers went on to note two prominent Harvard ‘drop-outs’ Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg may not have had that much support from the kind of strict parenting to which Ms. Chua refers.

Ms. Chua said her book was meant to be a ‘funny’ memoir rather than a parenting guide and it was a way to reflect on how her strict parenting didn’t exactly work out when her second child turned thirteen.

Overall, while somewhat charming and engaging, I wasn’t too impressed by her talk. It was still validating to come away with these few thoughts.

1) Have high expectations for your children/students.

2) All children are different and we need to recognize this.

3) Self-Esteem must be earned.

One thing I enjoyed from the conference were the illustrators that were engaged in live visual note-taking for each of the main speakers. Below is an example of Ms. Chua’s.

Are Tights for Girls or Boys?

Aside

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.

How do You Learn Best?

I often like to think about how my students learn best, and I don’t believe there is one correct way. I personally learn a lot from the stand-and-deliver lecture format, from reading, from small group discussions, from doing, from writing, reflecting, and through collaboration. This was true for me this past week when I attended the National Association of Independent School’s Annual Conference and participated in edcampis. I learned many things in a wide variety of formats.

Some liken what we know about the brain and learning to what Galileo and his contemporaries knew about our solar system: significant, but in its infancy. Most experts claim that our brains are all wired differently.

My goal isn’t then to find the one best practice to teach students, but to learn and provide them with a variety of best practices, so that they can be empowered to learn about anything, anytime, anywhere, and in any format.

TED talks are a format that fascinate me. Some have argued that they are simply a modern secular version of a 20 minute sermon (delivered to most over the internet). While independent school folk were gathering in Seattle for the annual conference, this year’s annual TED talks were taking place in Long Beach, CA. The first two talks released were polar opposites of each other. One talk warned us about of our excess waste and the economic, environmental, and democratic catastrophes that are happening right now (the secular version of fire and brimstone). The other talk was full of optimism, hope, and abundance. I enjoy thinking about and grappling with this kind of discourse. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle and we all have biases that lean one way or the other. My bias in this case is towards optimism. As an educator, I believe it’s not only us, but our students that will have to solve many of these complex problems.

Boolean choices are often thrust in front of us:

  • You’re either with us or against us.
  • The best ideas happen in isolation or they happen through collaboration.
  • Phonics vs. Whole Language (if you’re old enough to remember that)
  • Boys play with guns. Girls play with dolls.
  • VHS or Beta
  • Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

The TED talk below explores and celebrates introversion, but acknowledges that there is a spectrum between introversion and extroversion. People that lie somewhere in the middle of this spectrum are called ambiverts (a term I had never heard before). Where on this spectrum do our students lie, and are we supporting both their current needs and providing opportunities for them to stretch and grow outside their comfort zone?

Jonathan Martin’s Innovative Schools, Innovative Students Presentation at NAISAC12

  1. This is my attempt at trying a new web tool called “storify” to share what I was doing during the first morning session on Friday at the NAIS conference.
    Jonathan Martin is the Head of School at St. Gregory College Preparatory College in Arizona. I’ve enjoyed following his blog, tweets, and thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. It was also great to meet him in person, and it was an honor to have him attend edcampis.
    Jonathan Martin’s slides shared the same day after his presentation
  2. Some of the “conversation/sharing” happening at his session via twitter.
  3. Share
    Networked teachers are far more innovative. Add to your PLN today. Get out of silos. @JonathanEMartin #naisac12. Lead. Connect. Do.
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:57:21
  4. Share
    @JonathanEMartin is breathless as he rushes to share enough valuable info to keep room engaged for a full day in just 1 hour! #naisac12.
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:55:54
  5. Share
    Fail,prototype and iterate …how are you creating this culture via @JonathanEMartin #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:46:38
  6. Share
    YES! Twitter. :) “@cliffordshelley: Networked teachers are far more innovative. Make a PLN. @JonathanEMartin #naisac12. Lead. Connect. Do.”
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 12:00:33
  7. Share
    @jonathanemartin leadership style – Do it, prototype it, try it. #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:58:42
  8. Share
    @JonathanEMartin Play passion purpose…building sandboxes for your school #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:40:26
  9. Share
    Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner coming out April 17th, @jonathanemartin previewing the themes amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_nos… #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:39:04
  10. Share
    .@jonathanemartin has the packed room eating out of the palm on his hand, talking about how innovation happens #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:35:41
  11. Share
    @JonathanEMartin We may be more distracted but we r more connected & chance favors connected mind. rd: Where Good Ideas Come From #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:28:38
  12. Share
    @JonathanEMartin references Where good ideas come from…let’s make it happen #doers #talkers how agile is your org. to innovate? #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:26:18
  13. Share
    I agree w/.@JonathanEMartin re: fondness/love for traditional Indy schools AND for same schools needing enhancement & innovation. #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:10:11
  14. Share
    “Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.” – Godin via @JonathanEMartin InnoSchls #naisac12
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 11:04:06
  15. From Jonathan Martin’s blog where he also shared links to all the videos he shared or referenced.

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.

Day 2 at NAISAC12

The sessions I attended at today’s conference were validating and will take me a while to digest (especially since I’m gearing up for edcampIS tomorrow). I’ll write about each session in the coming weeks.

My favorite speaker was John Hunter. He wasn’t there to promote his own World Peace Game. That was just background. He was there to remind us that we all make connections and relationships with students and sometimes, even if it feels like the worst day of your career, it may take 10 years or more to realize the difference you made in one person’s life. It was truly powerful stuff. Named “Most Influential TED Talk in 2011” by Arriana Huffington. His humility and trust he placed in his students spoke volumes. It was very inspiring.

What I Heard About Day 1 at the NAISAC conference

It’s amazing how much information flows in the back channels (if you know how to find them) at conferences. I wasn’t able to attend today’s portion of the NAISAC12 conference but was able to glean a lot of information through dedicated bloggers and tweeters. I was also able to speak to a few people tonight about their thoughts on the speakers.

There was a lot of chatter in anticipation of the keynote Bill Gates. There were also some comments about NAIS being behind the times by not publishing their official twitter hashtag in their program. By the way, it’s #NAISAC12. Even our regional PNAIS fall conference embraced the hashtag. Anway, on to Bill.

The crowd was big and expectations were high. The session kicked off with Northwest School’s choir which sang a moving a cappella song. (Note: A good friend at the Northwest School mentioned that NAIS did not permit those students to stay to listen to Mr. Gates’ address.)

After a flash of innovators across the screen, King County exec Dow Constantine took the stage followed by NAIS president Pat Bassett. He thanked bloggers and tweeters (I guess that’s me) and announced that there were 4100+ registrants. He said of the 30,000 schools, one of our local competitor schools was noted for its river that runs through its campus. Then Bill Gates was introduced by the head of Lakeside School, Bernie Noe.

Bill Gates talked about the flipped classroom – a disruption model, but the twitter feed mentioned that no sessions on flipped classrooms at the conference were being offered at the conference. He never really addresses how to fuel the teachers that are out there innovating, and in the end, it seemed the general consensus was, it’s nice to have Bill Gates as a keynote, it was well-organized, but there wasn’t as much new information as some hoped. I will have to read a little more to try and find some nuggets to take away.

The afternoon closing session was conducted as three separate 20 minute keynotes. And every tweet and blog I read tonight only had this to say about Sarah Kay: WOW!  Brilliant!  Heart wrenching, powerful. superb! I’m fairly jealous of those who got to see her, I’ve posted her TED talk before, but it’s definitely worth a listen again.

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.

What to Do in Seattle While Attending NAISAC12?

The National Independent School Annual Conference kicks off tomorrow at the Washington State Convention Center here in Seattle. Having been fortunate enough to attend a few conferences in other cities, I know that sight seeing isn’t really on the agenda as each day is completely filled. By the time each day is over, most sights are closed or one is usually exhausted from the conference itself. Nonetheless, I’m going to try and give a few tips for those visiting our splendid city this week. Here are my top 5 things to do this week while you’re here.

5. Have dinner with colleagues in the Westlake/South Lake Union District. The theme for the conference is innovation, and you couldn’t be in a better city for it. Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and Costco are just a few of the innovative companies around here. Amazon has embraced the concept of an urban campus, and what used to be a rarely visited part of town is developing into quite a great spot – and that doesn’t include the 3 million square feet Amazon plans to build in the near future. It’s a short cab ride from downtown or you can ride the South Lake Union Trolley (only tourists do, so go ahead). Here are a few places.

4. Visit the Seattle Art Museum on Thursday night for free.

Every first Thursday of the month, Seattle has an art walk. I wouldn’t normally recommend walking at night in the Pioneer Square area, but all the galleries are open to the public until 8pm and its very safe on First Thursdays. You can check out this website for maps and galleries. In addition to the galleries, the Seattle Art Museum is free on the first Thursday of the month. It doesn’t include the current Gaugin exhibit, but there’s plenty of great art throughout the rest of the museum.

3. Visit the Seattle Public Library

Open til 8pm on Wednesday and Thursday, the central branch of the Seattle Public Library is quite an innovation in design and architecture. You might want to watch this TED talk first before your visit.

2. Come share what you’ve learned at edcampIS on Saturday, March 3.

Unwind after the big conference, and instead of listening to big keynotes, listen to other educators and share with each other what you’ve learned. Currently we have over 80 registrants from 16 states, DC, and Canada. To learn more visit edcampis. Also learn more about unconferences by reading an interview of one of the co-organizers, Liz Davis.

1. Go to the Pike Place Market BEFORE the conference. 

That is when the market is most alive with all the deliveries of fish, produce, and other colorful sights. Make sure to bring a camera!

I’m afraid if you haven’t been to Seattle before, it will live up to its reputation of being damp and cold. Just to prove that isn’t the case, I took a picture at school yesterday while the sun was shining. Even in the rain, I love this city, and I hope all visitors have a great conference.

What I’d Like to Ask Bill Gates Next Week

Next week, people from many places associated with independent schools will be in town for the National Independent Schools Annual Conference here in Seattle. I’m excited about this week for many reasons and hope to write about them in the coming days.

One of the things I’m interested in is what the featured keynote speaker, Bill Gates, has to say. I won’t be able to hear him speak directly on Thursday as I’ll be teaching. I will, however, be able to follow his address through many various channels.

I read his opinion piece in the NYTimes on Friday about his thoughts on New York making teacher performance assessments public. I agree with him on many points. One of these is that making teacher evaluation assessments publicly available isn’t going to do anything to help improve teaching. I also agree with Gates’ statement that “Teaching is multifaceted, complex work.” I also think that his push for robust teacher evaluations that help give direct feedback to teachers so they can improve their practice is a good thing. Mr. Gates calls for trained peers and supervisors to provide this feedback. I would love to invite a team from his foundation come visit me teach, so I can get that direct feedback on how to improve. In return, I’d love to be trained so I can pass it on and give this feedback to others. If there’s a way to sign up, let me know.

Effective teaching requires complicated measures, and I don’t believe that we’ve reliably figured out what combination of those metrics are. Unfortunately, the term ‘teacher accountability’ tends to scare people away from “creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.” As reported in an article titled “Teacher Quality Widely Diffused, Ratings Indicate,” the actual publication of New York’s assessments show that high and low performing teachers exist in every school regardless of wealth, neighborhood, or population.

The theme of the NAISAC12 conference is Innovation. I am a big fan of the work the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do and think its research into improving schools will benefit us all.

The Gates foundation recognizes the need to implement new ideas, and even if those attempts at education reform don’t work, analyzing and learning from the data is important. Microsoft, the company Gates founded some time ago took many risks and has been very successful, but along the way, it has also produced some things that didn’t work as well as they’d hope (remember the Kin anyone?). That didn’t stop them. In fact, I’m quite excited to see Microsoft trying to be a player in the mobile world. It promotes innovation from all its competitors.

In today’s op ed section of the NYTimes there’s an article titled “True Innovation” about Bell Labs. Last year I read two great books about innovation and risks: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and Tim Harford’s Why Success Always Starts with Failure: Adapt. Like so many things that end up being polarized, I think many things do not have to be either/or. The article and the books mention the need for both autonomy and collaboration. They are not exclusive of each other. The challenge is finding the balance, so that the continued cycle of improvement promotes both teacher accountability and innovative teaching.

If I had the chance, I’d like to ask Bill Gates this…

To fuel innovation, we often need to take risks. Risks come with many rewards, but they also come with failure. How do you balance teacher accountability while supporting and promoting innovative teaching?

If anyone gets a chance on Thursday to get behind a mic and ask this question, I’d love to hear his response. 


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.

Debate About Using Data to Measure Teacher Effectiveness

Worth the read: A good debate on using data to measure teacher effectiveness.

Measuring teacher effectiveness is complex, and I agree with the economists that if all evaluations are based on test scores, teaching to the test will increase, especially among the less effective teachers.

Unlike batting averages, most ‘official’ student test data is acquired only once a year. We’ve also seen some of the negative effects high stakes have had on sports. Also, unlike athletes, teachers don’t all peak at the same time.

I feel like I’m an effective teacher, but I’m not sure how to really assess that. I also feel I have a lot more to learn and plenty of room for improvement.

How Can Like-Minded Teachers Network? Organize an EdCamp

Being a teacher means that, for the most part you spend most of your day in a classroom with students. The rest of the time, you’re planning, preparing, assessing, reflecting, writing student evaluations, communicating with parents, and so on. The only real time you have to collaborate with others are the few times you meet with certain teachers at your school that happen to be on the same committee or task force, same grade-level or subject area team, or meetings that involve the entire faculty. On the rare occasion, teachers may happen to have lunch together, but it’s usually for a mere 15 minutes. If teacher’s schedules are so convoluted that they can’t meet to collaborate as often as they want in their own schools, then how can teachers network with teachers outside their own school and share some of the things they are doing?

Conferences are one way. They are designed to gather like-minded professionals together in one place. Conferences, however, are expensive. Unlike some other professional conferences that may include a golf junket in the Caribbean, teacher conferences are usually held in large US cities that are easy to get to. In these lean times, though, the opportunities to attend conferences have diminished.

Even at conferences, you have to work hard at meeting teachers who are passionate about the same things. For an introvert like me, meeting others is very difficult. Over the past couple of years, though, networking has become easier. First, I have to thank my school for sending me to a number of conferences these past few years. I don’t get to attend everything. My school has to say no sometimes. Perhaps it’s because I ask to go to a lot. What can I say? I love to learn.

As a teacher, networking is something I’ve had to learn how to do, and it’s not easy. For good or bad, we now live in a connected world. That has made networking easier. You can interact asynchronously with others, and they don’t even have to be in the same city. Eventually you will be at a similar conference and exchange ideas face to face. I wasn’t sure what twitter was all about and decided to give it a whirl a little less than a year ago. After all, what could one learn in 140 characters. But it’s not about that. When I hit the publish button for this post, I will have also sent out a tweet. That tweet will only have the headline, but it will also include a url to this post. If you have the right twitter reader, you will automatically see a preview of this post as well.

Twitter has led to a great deal of things, and I’ve managed to meet a few teachers. One of them, Kim Sivick was listed as one of 2011′s National Association of Independent School’s “Teacher of the Future.” I’m not a teacher of the future but Kim was kind enough to ask to put my blog on her blogroll at Teachers of the Future. The current post on there, titled “Conferences of the Future,” is written by Liz Davis, someone else I met (first through twitter) who is one of the organizers of the ‘unconferenceedcampIS. It’s FREE! It’s also something that I’m really excited about helping to organize.

So even if your school budgets don’t allow you to attend everything you want to go to, there are teachers who recognize the need to network beyond tweets and blogs. If you’re going to be in Seattle for the NAISAC12 conference, you can spend around $500 to hear Bill Gates speak (actually I’d do it if I could afford it), or you can come to The Northwest School a couple of days after and listen to your passionate colleagues speak for free! Already registered are Teachers, Heads of Schools, Deans, Parents, Consultants, Educational non-profits, and more. We have 11 states, D.C., and one Canadian province represented. What are you waiting for? Register now at http://www.edcampis.org – It will be a great networking opportunity!

 

Two Words I’d Like to See Disappear From Education Articles This Year

Finland & Singapore.

Both countries are on my list of places I’d like to visit one day. What I’m tired of reading is articles that keep trying to compare their education system to the US’s. I agree that it’s important to look for what’s working in education. Unfortunately, comparisons to student achievement and teacher quality in those countries to the US cannot be done easily. There are many challenges that face US education, both independent and public, but simply comparing them to Finland or Singapore is unfair. Finland, Singapore and the US are very different.

In the past few years, Finland has been one of the countries that has consistently placed first on international academic tests. It doesn’t surprise me then that many education reform leaders are trying to look at their practices. In a nytimes article last month, it even mentioned that the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, Pat F. Bassett has made the pilgrimage. The one thing I like about Finland’s education system is that most kids don’t start testing and homework until their teens!

Still, Finland or Singapore are small countries that value teaching. It can be harder to get into a school of education than into law or medicine (and the schooling is fully subsidized). they recognize that the quality of teaching matters and they support that from the beginning.

Apart from that, looking at what Finland or Singapore is doing right is not going to fix the challenges that exist today in the US. I agree with Linda Darling Hammond, that it might be a good model for a state like Kentucky, but both those countries have a much more homogenous society.

The US education system has to stop being reactionary. It cannot repair itself simply by learning from Finland. It has to innovate and lead. Education in this country has always been able to do that, and I am optimistic that it will continue to do so. There are many amazing schools with incredible teachers doing many things right. We should start to look at those as models first. Good teachers eventually find the schools that fuel and support their passion and purpose. It should be the other way around. Schools should be finding those qualified teachers.

Just think of all the people who learned Russian or Japanese not too long ago. I think it’s great that they learned a foreign language, but I wonder if those choices were based on what was going on in the world at that time. Finland and Singapore are both on my list of countries I’d like to visit, but somehow I don’t think the general population is going to be learning Finnish anytime soon.

hyvää yötä

What is the Value of a Good Teacher?

A “study, by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities, finds that if a great teacher is leaving, parents should hold bake sales or pass the hat around in hopes of collectively offering the teacher as much as a $100,000 bonus to stay for an extra year.”

This is taken from an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in today’s nytimes titled, “The Value of Teachers.” Of course that’s never going to happen – at least not in the foreseeable future. But why not? Teachers are still mostly rewarded simply by how long they’ve been teaching. There’s some incentive for those with a higher degree, but it’s minimal in most cases.

In many industries, there are many options for growth opportunities. Not for teachers, though. I am very fortunate that I work with many who are always looking to improve the way they teach, however the opportunity for career advancement is limited. I should clarify. There are a myriad of different opportunities in education for advancement. All of them, however, are far removed from the classroom. One could become an administrator, consultant, researcher, academic, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, none of that list includes remaining in the classroom. At this point in time, good teachers are truly undervalued.

Best 2nd Grade Books for 2011

It’s that time of year again where ‘best of 2011′ lists in every conceivable category seem to pop up everywhere. I figured I may as well compile my list of best books for 2nd grade.

In the past few years, there have been many children’s books that would have made my list, except for the fact that they weren’t really suitable for all 2nd graders. Books on those lists would have included Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (2010 and 2009 Newbery Award Winners). I keep hoping for another book like Kate DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery winner The Tale of Despereaux, a book that has deep complex characters and themes, that although sometimes dark, are balanced with just the right amount of light for young children. It’s no accident that one of Despereaux’s foes is named Chiaroscuro.

There were many engaging chapter books that 2nd graders gravitated towards this year, but most were books that were part of a series like, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. My list of top 2nd grade books for 2011, therefore, does not include a chapter book. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.


Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

You can say so much with so few words and marvelous images. A great book about memory, aging, gardening, history, family, and much more.

 


Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, pictures by Beth Krommes

Not surprisingly, Beth Krommes has already won a Caldecott Award. The illustrations are mesmerizing.

 


Press Here by Herve Tullett

For all the people who are averse to reading on a tablet, this book has a great sense of humor in the way one is supposed to interact with a physical book.

 

 

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (illus. by Chris Van Allsburg; written by various)

Originally published in 1984, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, was a book of fantastic illustrations, each with only a single caption. These illustrations and captions have been great story starters that have inspired children to write. Now, well known authors like Sherman Alexie, Kate DiCamillo, Stephen King, Jon Scieszka, and Lemony Snicket have all contributed their story to one of the illustrations. I haven’t all the stories yet, but the ones I have are great!

 

The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood In China by Ed Young

An amazingly illustrated memoir of the author’s childhood in Shanghai during WWII.

 

 

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Another book that says so much with so little. It’s also wickedly funny.

 

 

Everything On It by Shel Silverstein

Books that are published posthumously often seem to be a random compilation of odds and ends. That’s not the case with this collection of poems, each as silly, witty, and fun as any in his other collections.

 

The Lego Ideas Book: Unlock Your Imagination by Daniel Lipkowitz

Currently, it’s the most sought after book in my classroom library.

 

 

There are several books that were published this year that I have yet to read, something I hope to do this winter break. Among them are Wonderstruck, Inside Out and Back Again, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, and Secrets at Sea. I’m hoping one of these will make a good read-aloud.

Have a wonderful holiday!