A Few Things I Learned at the Fall PNAIS Conference

PNAIS11 Innovation and Change in the Classroom

This year’s PNAIS fall conference was an exciting one for me. As a member of the planning committee, a presenter, an attendee, and an exhibitor, it was quite the juggling act to wear all these hats. I did learn a lot and had a great time doing so. It was held at The Overlake School which has a beautiful campus in Redmond, WA.

There was a lot of discussion over the keynote: Sal Khan. His TED talk is at the bottom of this post. Some were intrigued, others inspired, some puzzled, and others were left shaking their heads.

  • I learned that when educators leave having to grapple with many questions, rich discussions often emerge.
  • I learned that I can continue to meet people face to face that I’ve only tweeted with before and make new virtual colleagues that I will no doubt meet in the near future.
  • I learned that many people have never heard of an edcamp or ‘unconference’ before which is going to make co-organizing it a lot of fun (I’ll post more on that in a few weeks).
  • I learned a lot about change.
  • Teachers were validated by the closing keynote, TJ Vasser, one of the first African Americans to attend the same high school Bill Gates attended, talk about social change – And that social change happens because of teachers.
  • I learned I could get over my fear of public speaking.
  • I learned I could adapt.
  • I started out preparing a presentation about using social media to network and learn, and instead realized that in order to learn one really has to embrace uncertainty.
  • I learned that in order to inspire ‘life long learners’ you have to be one yourself.
  • I learned that starting to serve on an accreditation team the Sunday after the fall conference on a week that ends with parent conferences may have been a bit ambitious.
Learning can be rejuvenating and inspiring. I am looking forward to more opportunities to learn this year.

Failure is not an F word

The word “failure” has such an awful ring to it. It is, however, how we learn. In order to do so, though, one needs to take risks. It’s something that I ask my students to do every day, and I am often in awe at their willingness to put themselves out on a limb and try new things. And if I’m asking my students to do this, am I modeling it for them?

There’s a beautiful sentence in my school’s values statement: “We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.”

As adults, risking and failing can be difficult to do, but we must. The important thing, though, is that we do it fast, and learn quickly.

Last week, at a suggestion of a friend in celebration of poetry month, I introduced my kids to Clerihews. They’re short four line poems that have no particular rhythm or meter. They do have an aabb rhyme scheme, and the subject of the poem just has to be about a person (real or fictional). We decided to write them using powerpoint. We focused the instruction and questions on the poem and then headed to the computers to create our slides. What amazed me was how quickly kids took risks, clicking buttons and trying new things to add elements to their slide. When some had questions like, “how do you change the font?” I simply replied, “Look at all the buttons and tools and see if you can figure it out for yourself.” Of course, they did.

The risks they had to take – first with the poetry, playing with words and rhyme, and second with a tech tool they had very little practice using, didn’t faze them one bit. The only ‘failure’ was a child who didn’t save his work to his file, but he learned something valuable and he learned it quickly.

How often do teachers take risks, and whether they fail or succeed, are they learning from those risks? We can learn so much from our mistakes. If we allow ourselves.

I was thrilled to hear our that we secured Sal Khan for the keynote at the fall conference for PNAIS (a committee I’m proud to be on). I’m excited not because of his product  (I’ve actually experimented with Khan Academy a little bit with my students and it has its shortcomings), but I’m excited because of he brings the innovative message of flipping the classroom. I’m excited about the risk involved in bringing on a speaker like that to a group of teachers. I’m excited at the potential learning, discourse, and discussions we are sure to have.

April’s issue of the Harvard Business Review was all about failure. And the TED talk below from Kathryn Shulz on being wrong really highlights the importance of learning from mistakes.

Targeted Learning

This weekend’s trip to Portland for the PNAIS conference was really good and validating to much of what we do at our school.

I was reading several articles from this month’s Ed. Leadership issue which focuses on ‘intervention’. There were several articles about RTI (Response To Intervention). Sadly, many schools use RTI to boost test scores and support only students on the bubble, or they see it as something mandated that is just added work. We need to support all students (whether they are high achieving already, or severely lagging behind) and make sure that they are receiving targeted instruction. At my school, we haven’t called it RTI, but we have been trying to target instruction or personalize it, as Yong Zhao suggested, for quite a while. There are some things that work with all children, and some children may need more help in one area and/or be given more challenging and meaningful work in another.

There are many who criticize rote learning, but it depends on what you’re learning. Author of Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina said that rote learning was crucial had a great metaphor in his talk this weekend. Think of a Jazz musician. He is going to have to have that circle of fifths memorized somewhere (learned by rote) before he can improvise upon it. This is the same with math facts, or knowing your vowels. Memorizing the capital city of every single country or all the major dates in French history may fun for some kids, but it won’t necessarily boost their performance in history or geography. Perhaps if you were going to be the Secretary of State or majoring in French history, those cities or dates would be very handy, but do elementary school children need to know this? We need to nurture both rote learning and improvisation. We need kids not only to be able to read and do basic arithmetic, but also who can dream, innovate, and be motivated intrinsically.

Medina also discussed how brains are all wired differently, and that sometimes there are gaps in a student’s learning. It is part of our job to discover those gaps, or make the students aware of those gaps, so that their instruction can be targeted or personalized. Whether those gaps are a math skill or an executive skill, learning about your student is key to their learning.

Finally, there was a session about mean girls, and there were a lot of great things offered by the presenter, Michelle Anthony (author of the book, Little Girls Can be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades) that we are already doing at our school. Some of those things included teaching kids to differentiate between tattling and reporting, asking and validating kids when they come to a grown-up for help rather than dismissing it, and most importantly taking action. If we want kids to avoid being bystanders, the grown-ups can’t be bystanders as well.

Does that mean we can’t keep growing and improving? Of course not. There are still many areas in which we as a school can grow – perhaps a few gaps here and there – as all schools have their own areas of growth. I guess we need to be able to identify our own gaps, like we are doing with our social-emotional learning curriculum this year, and target our own instruction. We also need teachers and administrators who not only know their stuff, but can dream, innovate, and be motivated intrinsically.


Yong Zhao at PNAIS: Children Are Like Pop Corn

Dr. Zhao’s presentation at the PNAIS fall conference today was great. With the main premise that American education promotes innovation and entrepreneurship. When asked where the next Microsoft, Apple or Google would come from, the answer was the US.

With the former president’s NCLB and the current administration’s Race to the Top, where test scores are the main measure for student success or teacher accountability, they are actually doing more harm.

The world is changing and it’s the creative class that are going to be the most successful. He joked that if you asked kids in India or China what they aspired to, they answered engineer, scientist, etc. and that they wanted to go to Harvard or MIT. Americans would answer the same questions with answers like Perdue, or another school. And then he joked about the time he asked his 5 year-old daughter about what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said, “an elephant.”

It was a great story to say that as Americans, we dream big. We aspire to more than being competent in calculus. We have a broad education and we nurture our children’s talents.

While we have a goal that every third grader will be able to read proficiently, it’s not high enough. We want them to dream. We want them to dream big.

What is important in American education is innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, passion, purpose, and pursuits. The more diverse your place of work, the better it will be. Not because those who are diverse have better ideas, but they will have different ideas to bring to the table and from the combination of several ideas may even emerge a novel one. This would apply to children in a classroom as well. He said technology, talent, and tolerance will lead the way.

He then recalled a first grade teacher that said to him, “Children are like pop-corn. The all pop at different times.” And when we expect children to fall within a line on a chart by measuring them through a standardized tests, we are not teaching them to be innovative, create,  and be entrepreneurs.

“Where’s the hope?” Zhao asks. Then his next slide is a picture of Madonna. She probably didn’t have the highest scores in elementary school, came from a small town in Michigan. Sure she has a niche audience. But that niche exists all over the globe.

Like Daniel Pink said in his book A Whole New Mind, Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning are the skills that will guide the leaders of the 21st century.

As our current president endorses extending the school year, China is looking to shortening it.

So what can we do to acheive this?

Personalize Education toward “the drive to tailor education to individual need, interest and aptitude so as to fulfill every young person’s potential” (Department for Education and Skills (UK), 2004)

We need more kids aspiring to become elephants.



Tech Night at SAAS

Tonight I attended SAAS (a neighboring grade 6-12 school)’s technology open house with a few colleagues. I always find it refreshing to visit what other middle and high school students are doing as it often acts as another way to think about what we need to prepare our kids for. It was a great way to see how both teachers and students used technology to enhance learning and make it more engaging. It also reminded me that wishing for an interactive whiteboard was one thing, but knowing how to use it to teach effectively was another. Also, many of these teachers created their own content for these interactive sites and as one knows, that not only takes a lot of time, but also know how. Many teachers there had webpages for their students. Some used Moodle, an open source community based course management system, or had blogs or websites of their own outside their school’s website environment. Here’s an example of a 6th grade teacher’s history website/blog (created using edublogs) that includes interactive SMART activities that he built. When I went to click on those activities it downloaded a .notebook file which I couldn’t open immediately. I had to look it up and figure out what it was. That led to more scanning and reading and searching and clicking and scanning, etc. I’m excited that my school is looking into many options regarding technology in general, but I’m afraid that I need to do a lot more homework before taking the plunge.

There are a plethora of interactive sources shared by teachers out there, but not all will suit an individual teacher’s needs. Also, not all interactive file formats are interchangeable. Like using text books or any resources off a shelf, teachers will need to customize and/or create their own in order to make learning meaningful for their students. There’s a lot to learn. Hopefully, with most things tech these days, the learning curve isn’t too bad and there isn’t any code to learn.

Here’s SAAS’s official photo gallery. Notice they use a site outside their school’s site. Ease of use perhaps?

All in all, it was a great evening of learning on my part. My guess is that by the time I figure out how to teach effectively with newer technology (where most of the equipment like interactive white boards, projectors, etc. are tethered or fixed to walls or power cords) many will have switched to more mobile tools (kindle, ipads, etc.).

PNAIS Fall Conference 2010: Featured Speakers Announced

I’m really excited about the lineup for the PNAIS fall conference this year. The featured speakers are Dr. John Medina, Dr. James Banks, and Dr. Yong Zhao. I’ve written a little bit about all three speakers on this blog and you can read more by clicking on each name above.  You can also click here to read the promotional flyer. In addition to these great speakers, PNAIS is looking for you. So if you have something to share and present or an affinity group to lead, go to this part of the PNAIS website and click on the “And YOU” graphic for more details.