My Lesson in "Us vs. Them"


It was 9pm on Thanksgiving night.  My belly was bursting and my eyelids were heavy.  I was sitting on an Amtrak train back to Philadelphia after a wonderful evening in NYC with my family.  I sat in the window seat, and was joined shortly by a man with a laptop bag.

The train began moving, and he opened up his laptop.  Immediately, I noticed the School District of Philadelphia desktop background and I looked up from my book and said, "School District of Philadelphia?"  He said, "Yes."  I offered, "I teach at Bluford Elementary in West Philadelphia."  He replied, "How's the move going?"  I was immediately taken aback.  I rarely meet someone who has heard of my school, and no one ever knows anything about our temporary relocation.  He followed with, "I helped plan that move."  I was intrigued.

It turned out that the man sitting next to me was none other than the Chief Business Officer for the School District.  We proceeded to spend the next hour and a half discussing the School District's history over the last 8 years, starting with the State takeover, dissolution of the School Board and the leadership of Paul Vallas.  We discussed pay for performance and teacher pay in general. Stemming from my statement that in any other neighborhood with any other parents, our old building would have been a lawsuit waiting to happen, he even showed me a graph on his laptop showing how much the district spent on its facilities up until the last few years (let me tell you, it was pretty measly!).  He explained that the district had decided to pump more money into its buildings in the last few years since the money was there.  (For more on our former building, you can read my posts here and here.)

As the conversation unfolded, I began to realize that this man with an all-important job, who had worked for the Rendell and Street administrations in Philadelphia as well as in Harrisburg was acting with the students and teachers in mind along with protecting the fiscal health of the District.  Why wouldn't he?  Why is it that 'us' teachers in the classroom look to blame the leadership 'downtown' at the School District ('them') for all of our problems?  We teachers always talk about how 'they' forget the children, that decisions are never made with the students and teachers in mind.  We talk about initiatives that are poorly thought out and even more poorly executed by 'them.'  Why should we believe that 'they' don't want teachers to succeed or that they don't want children to learn?  Similarly, why should  the top of the administration chain ('us') look at the teachers ('them') as being incompetent in the classroom or in need of more supervision and mandatory support due to dropping test scores.

Most people don't get into education without good intentions.  What is it about this convoluted, huge and disorganized system that turns us against each other?  Even those who work in the upper echelons understand that disorganization reaches down the rungs and affects the teachers and students in the classrooms.  It's kind of like a hugely expensive and paramount game of telephone.

This brought up more questions.  Why does the state still run our school district?  Why don't the taxpayers and parents seem to have a say?  Why are my union negotiations behind closed doors while issues are negotiated for my best interest without my interests being voiced to anyone?  Are teachers and parents' voices being heard when it comes to budgetary concerns?

When Ackerman came in as Superintendent, she started an initiative called "Imagine 2014." I attended one of the community meetings to discuss and give input into the new initiative.  We were shown a PowerPoint explaining the initiative and then broke out into discussion rooms based around parts of the initiative.  When the final initiative came out, it was as if they used the fact that these 'listening sessions' occurred as a reason that the initiative was supported and created by Philadelphia constituents.  The intentions were good, but the result lackluster.  This feeds into the "Us v. Them" mentality, which I have been guilty of harboring for years.  I felt that my input into the meeting was wasted breath.

In addition, as an 'Empowerment School' (aka failing school) my school has completely lost control over all of its academic functions.  We teach scripted programs over 45 minutes to an hour a day, 5 days a week and we are told what we are to teach, when we are to teach it, and how to teach it.  We are told what needs to be hanging on our walls, outside our classroom as well as what page we're supposed to be on in our Teachers' Guides.  Talk about feeding the 'Us v. Them' mentality.  However, when looked at through the eyes of the implementers, they are helping us meet our students' needs since we have been failing to do so for so many years (disclaimer: we have made AYP once, so at some point we were heading down the right road without all of these 'supports').  No one has bad intentions, but initiatives that come down from above get caught in that game of telephone and end up a garbled mess.

All of this has made me rethink the 'Us v. Them' mentality.  It gets us nowhere.  The problem is not in the intentions, but rather in how people (don't) work together to achieve a common goal.  And yes, in the end, it is the people we serve (the children of Philadelphia and their families) who lose out.  I can no longer blame only the individuals, but I must blame the system in which we are all caught.

The first step in fixing this systemic problem is making the system smaller.  In Philadelphia, we used to have SLCs (Small Learning Communities) made up of regional schools to put more power back in the hands of schools, who know best what their students and communities need.  Of course, these were part of the previous initiative, Children Achieving (see Part III), which went out when Paul Vallas came in.  While new initiatives are hard to avoid, the idea of a smaller system in place to handle such initiatives can help appease the 'Us vs. Them' mentality.

What are your experiences and thoughts?

This post is part of the MAT@USC Hope for the holidays event. Did you have an experience or witness something in 2009 which gave you hope for the future of American education? If so, please see this post for more information on how to share it.

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My New Favorite Unconference: BarCamp Philly!


Yesterday I attended BarCamp Philly, a gathering of people from all walks of life who converged on the University of the Arts building with the sole purpose of, well, seeing what happens!  I met up with Ann Leaness on 15th Street as she walked from the train.  We had never met in person, but have been talking on Twitter for months ever since we met in an Elluminate session. (Ann, you can correct me if my memory is fuzzy!)  After getting some breakfast, we went to register, finding Kevin Jarrett and Rob Rowe and Kristen Swanson by the registration tables.  A few minutes after finding a seat to discuss our plans, Dan Callahan showed up as well and we began talking about doing one of the sessions we had been contemplating in a Google Doc Rob created before the conference to allow us to connect before meeting each other in person.

As we began talking, it was clear that we would be running 2 sessions, with Kevin manning his "Teaching as a Second Career" session at 10am and us running a "Social Media Survival Guide for Schools" at 2:30pm.  We found an empty classroom around 9am and started brainstorming.  What ensued was a dream come true for any true tech geek.  The 6 of us sat, laptops and netbooks open, with a Google Doc agenda in the works.   We alternated roles between adding links, tables and formatting text to create the final product.  We talked about using Google Wave, but with all of us working wirelessly and Dan using a netbook that might not have been able to handle it, we stayed with Docs, though it would have been a great use of Wave.

Teaching as a Second Career

After a short opening statement by the organizers we headed toward our first session with Kevin.  In the session were a group of people who were thinking of entering the teaching profession.  We answered their questions and gave them as much insight as we could about the career that we have made our lives.  Kevin was a great presenter, and, his story of changing careers is inspiring.  Hearing myself talking about what I do on a day to day basis really gave me a new found love of my career. In fact, I felt inclined to tweet about it:

Things That Suck

Next, Ann and I headed to the "Things That Suck" session to have a little fun and get out of 'work' mode for an hour.  It turned out to be pretty fun.  We were seated in a tiny theater called "The Black Box" with a facilitator who gave us the rules for the session.  He would be presenting us with a topic and we would have to decide whether we thought it 'sucked,' 'didn't suck,' or if we were 'ambivalent.'  The first topic was "Apple Web Design."  We had to sit in the appropriate section of the small theater that was designated for each opinion, moving around as our opinion changed.

The facilitator would ask people in each section why they had chosen that section and he would build debate by asking participants to rebut the other side's argument. It was silly and fast-paced and some people actually made some good points.  There was a lot of playful dialogue and the facilitator did a good job of maintaining the energy of the activity.  At one point, during a discussion of whether email 'sucked' or 'didn't suck' a woman argued that email was great for marketing, and the best way for her to send you coupons.  "You're the devil!" yelled the eternally ambivalent green-haired gentlemen sitting behind me.  That was the vibe. It was great.

I also got to meet another Twitter PLN member, Mike Ritzius, for the first time face to face at this session, though with the fast pace of the session we didn't get to really say much more than 'hi.'  He said he was doing a session right after ours.

Lunch Time

Ann and I headed to lunch with Dan and Rob, hoping to snag a table and free WiFi at Cosi, which we did.  Kevin and Kristen followed a little later.  We were supposed to be planning the session we had in mind, but like most conversations involving teachers, we ended up spending 45 minutes discussing education issues and comparing notes on how things are done in our respective districts and roles.  We discussed everything from the new 'modified' PSSA and web filtering vs. good classroom management, to the rampant problems with IEP compliance that we have seen over the years.

Finally, we buckled down and got our Google Doc agenda finished.  As we were about to tweet out the agenda to the BarCamp attendees (using the #bcphilly hashtag) the WiFi went down in Cosi, so we headed to the room where we would be presenting.

The Social Media Survival Guide for Schools

Sitting in the room was Mike and 2 other educators who would be presenting in the same room right after us.  We settled ourselves and set up the projector as people slowly filed in.  We were happy to see that at least there were more attendees than presenters (there were 6 of us!)  We found that there were not many educators in the audience, though there were 2 librarians in attendance.  We covered digital identity, professionalism and taking care with what you put up online as well as challenges that we come across when trying to use social media tools in the classroom.  We had a chance to discuss the successes we've had, with Ann sharing her student Ning and me sharing my student work wiki and student blog.  What was amazing about the whole session was that the 6 of us had never met in person before.  Some of us had just met on Twitter over the past few days.  Yet, once we were all in one place, it was like we had always know each other.  That in itself is proof of the power of Social Media for learning and collaboration.

Honestly, I have no idea how well received our session was, but most people stuck around, so I guess it couldn't have been that bad.

Asynchronous Learning

Next up was Mike Ritzius and Nicolae Borota from Gloucester Township Technical High School in Camden County, New Jersey.  As they began to describe the innovative Project Based Learning that they were doing with their students I was dripping with amazement and, to be honest, a little bit of jealousy. 

They are 2 of 5 teachers who co-teach a group of about 100 students in grades 9-12 in one large, converted shop room.  Each teacher has a different area of expertise (Mike is the Science teacher and Nicolae the Math teacher) and they integrate all of the content areas through Project Based Learning.  They each are in charge of about 16 students as their 'advisory' and they teach large group as well as in smaller 'seminars' which are held in an adjoining classroom or in rooms not in use in the building.  The students stay in the classroom all day, leaving only to attend specials like gym and, as it is a technical high school, to attend career classes like mechanics. 

They use Project Foundry and Moodle to facilitate the projects and assignments.  Students sometimes attend 20 minute seminars that deliver content and then move to a workstation or a computer to complete a discussion or an assignment based on the seminar.  Since all of the work is completed online, Nicolae and Mike reported that many students who are home sick log in and complete their assignments and take part in the classroom discussions from home through Moodle.  The teachers have found that many students are not used to working so hard.  There are no separate 45 minute classes with transitions, so students are working all day long.  (in photo: Nicolae on the left, Mike on the right.)

The teachers in this classroom work closely to plan lessons and call themselves a PLC (Professional Learning Community).  They have been using Google Wave to plan and coordinate lessons and they have built a community of learners who are independent and who are as engaged with the content as their teachers are.  You could see the glint of excitement in both Mike and Nicolae's eyes while they were discussing their classroom.

When asked about discipline issues, they told a funny story.  They have different rules in their classroom than the rest of the school.  This is part of the open and independent community that they have built over the last 2 months that they have been teaching together.  They do not have huge discipline issues in the classroom--though students have been written up for cutting classes that they were supposed to go to because they weren't watching the clock and forgot to go.  However, once a teacher approached them saying they didn't like the way the kids didn't have to follow the same rules as the rest of the school.  One of their students had been in trouble in this teacher's class for having his or her cell phone out.  Mike and Nicholae indicated to the teacher that, although they allow students to have cell phones out in class, there was not one student in the classroom with a cell phone out.  This, the two explained, is because their students are too engaged in what they are doing to find time or have a reason to pull out a cell phone.

What is amazing about this, what could be called 'experiment,' is the amount of administrative support the teachers have received from their Superintendent and the local administration.  Mike is the president of his teacher's union, so he was able to present this learning model to the Superintendent himself.

For more information about this amazing classroom, you can contact Mike and Nicholae:

Email: or you can follow him on Twitter:
Email: or you can follow him on Twitter:

Closing Thoughts 

BarCamp Philly was an amazing time.  It was so refreshing to attend such an event so close to home.  What all of us teachers kept saying was how amazing a BarCamp would be for staff development.  It's a great way for teachers to act as leaders and experts in their own school, as well as a great opportunity for collaboration across grade levels and disciplines.  It also allows teachers to choose the area that interests them or is relevant rather than all teachers receiving the same training whether it applies to them or not, which is the current practice in most schools and districts.

BarCamp also got me really excited for Educon in January.  If I could just do these kinds of conferences all day everyday, I'd be happier than a pig in....well, you know.

Thanks to Kevin Jarrett for the photos of lunch and our session!
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BarCamp Philly


Tomorrow I am attending my first ever BarCamp.  I signed up for it without really understanding exactly what I was getting myself into, but I recognized a Twitter colleague, Ann Leaness, on the 'attending' list, so I signed up. 

It turns out I might be in for a treat!

So what is a 'BarCamp?' I guess it can best be described as an 'unconference' conference.  Attendees meet at 8am and post possible forum/panel discussions and then rooms are assigned and the discussion begins.  It goes until 6pm, with attendees from all walks of life converging with the sole purpose of conversation an networking.

I will be updating my blog and Twitter with events and experiences of the day.

The hashtag is: #bcphilly
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Effective Professional Development: Giving Teachers What They Want


Today we had district-wide Professional Development.  On Wednesday of last week the "Activity Catalog" in our web-based 'PD Planner' updated to show the options for the full-day sessions.  Immediately emails began popping up on the PTRN listserv.  There was NOTHING being offered for TTLs (Technology Teacher Leaders) or lab teachers.  As such, we were all forced to pick a session that may have had little or nothing to do with what we do on an everyday basis.

As a joke, I sent out an email saying "Hey, I'll hold a workshop!"  Surprisingly, many people responded to me asking if I was doing a workshop, and that if I was that they would sign up.

This spawned the idea of proposing such a crazy idea to someone higher up, which I did.

A few hours and emails later, at the end of my PD session, through a beautiful act of serendipity, I was sitting in the same room as the head of Educational Technology who had received my proposal and was enthusiastic about the idea.

What followed was one of the most exciting and refreshing conversations I've had here at SDP in a while.  Especially with someone way up on the ladder! It turns out that we have a subscription to Elluminate and that there is a possibility that I could run an Elluminate session.  WOW!  (I hope I don't get in trouble for broadcasting that here on this blog.)

On the walk back to the parking lot I ran into a former colleague of mine who is a lab teacher.  He said, "Thank you for putting that idea up there on the listserv. I'm behind you all the way."

When I got home and had a moment to breathe, I created a Google Form to collect information on what kinds of PD people would be interested in.  Some topics included:
  • using Google Docs in the classroom
  • creating a class wiki
  • creating a PortaPortal or page
  • using iMovie, Garageband, Audacity or Windows MovieMaker in the classroom
  • tips for managing the role of TTL (Technology Teacher Leader)
  • running a server-based environment (Workgroup Manager, Apple Remote Desktop)
  • podcasting
Here is a screenshot of the survey:


I created a discussion on our Ning (Philly Teacher Techs) and included a link to the Google form.  I then sent out a message to all of the members asking them to fill out the survey to help me know what kinds of PD people want.  I also added questions asking whether people would be willing to help present or present their own workshop, whether people would prefer a webinar or a face to face workshop and whether people would be willing attend knowing that they may not get Act 48 hours for it.

Within 5 minutes of sending out the link I had no less than 7 replies in my spreadsheet!

This is proof enough that there is a high level of interest in professional development geared around what teachers want and that it is not being offered.  I know this is based on the topics I chose. I have seen one or two of them listed perhaps once or twice during the school year as an after school workshop with a limited number of openings that usually close up, but most have never been offered.  However, the topics that I'd never seen offered were the topics that most people chose!

What makes the job of a lab teacher so hard is that we often work in isolation.  While grade teachers have their 'grade groups' or 'grade partners' with whom to bounce ideas off of, we do not.  There is (usually) only one of us in the building.  We also often wear many hats which are not technically in our job description.  As a result, the job can get pretty darn overwhelming.

My goal for starting these workshops is to build a learning community for us so that we have someone to reach out to in times of need and so we have others to share our own ideas with for feedback.

The most amazing thing?  Out of 8 total responses so far, 100% said they'd be interested in helping present and that they would participate knowing that they wouldn't be compensated.

Already it is obvious that these workshops will be effective because teachers WANT the information and are willing to SHARE information and it is RELEVANT to what they do in their classrooms.

I see a small ray of light shining at the end of the tunnel and the best part is: I don't have to make the journey alone!

lab photo courtesy of Extra Ketchup on Flickr
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Give 'Em the Technology (but don't dare train them how to use it)


As mentioned in my earlier post, we all received brand new 16G iPod Touches today at my TTL (Technology Teacher Leader) meeting.  Right at the beginning of the meeting we were given a form to fill out and we approached the table where our regional Instructional Technology Specialists were sitting and traded the form for a shiny, new iPod touch.

Along with the iPods we were given a paper with step-by-step directions on how to set up our district email on the device.  We received training on how to register the device with the district's wireless network and nothing else.  When the presenter asked if people wanted to set up their email, one of my colleagues who works at ETG (Educational Technology Group--an office downtown) jumped in and said "there's a piece of paper for that!"  (I clapped--it would have been more time wasted for me!)

I was tweeting with another colleague of mine in the meeting.  We couldn't believe that this was a room full of 'Technology Teacher Leaders' who couldn't set up their email accounts by following step by step directions!

And so is the problem with how technology is introduced into schools.....  "Here's this great tool, guys.  Don't expect us to teach you anything more than how to turn it on!"

I am SOOO excited by the possibilities for podcasting and all of the amazing applications I can use with my students.  I, luckily, have experience with the product since I already have an iPhone, and I am aware of all that the device can offer due to my PLN on Twitter and the IEAR Ning, a community dedicated completely to using these devices in the classroom.

But what, I ask, are a group of people who can't figure out how to turn the device on and off or set up an email account with clear, precise directions provided do with such a powerful device?  I can't imagine much.

While completing my Masters as an Instructional Technology Specialist I took a whole course called "Technology Planning." When spending $199 each on over 100 devices, there should be some kind of plan in place for how these devices will be used.  We weren't given any guidance as to how the district even envisioned them being used!  You can read my post on planning for technology to see how I believe new technology should be introduced into a school or a district.

Hopefully there will be follow-up training....

For more information on using iPod Touches in the classroom, check out this amazing list of resources:

Diigo public bookmarks tagged with 'itouch'

plan image courtesy of juhansonin on Flickr

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The War Against Filtering: Is there a real solution?


I had a meeting today 'downtown' at our District's main offices.  There were about 40 TTLs (Technology Teacher Leaders) from different schools across the city all crammed into a small lab all eager to hear why they were there.

What ensued was an overview of resources and procedures that we, as TTLs, should know.  Links to directions on how to access public folders, links to how to order new hardware, dispose of old hardware, etc....  All stuff I've known about for years now.  Siiighhh...I patiently sat through the overview while I set up my email on the new iPod Touch we had all received at the beginning of the meeting (more on that later).

At the part of the agenda when we were talking about filtering, I heard my name float across the room from the main speaker, who happened to be standing in the doorway.  I looked up in surprise.  I had no idea who he was, but he addressed me by my first name....hmm....  He was discussing the district's new system for attending to requests to unblock sites.  I've been, well to put in nicely, hounding the filtering team about unblocking GlogsterEDU and VoiceThread since August to no avail.   Apparently I am (in)famous 'downtown' for my persistence and big mouth.  He said something to the effect of, "We were hoping to bribe you, Mary Beth, with the iPod to appease your filtering requests." I smiled.  I liked the guy already.

What the gentleman (who, it turned out is head of Technology Services for the district) began to explain made my heart go 'pitter-patter.'  He understood.  He explained how they are changing the system by which sites get reviewed.  "We need to have more input on the instructional side.  Right now we have IT guys reviewing sites, and they don't always get the educational value of a site."  He explained that the new committee would be made up of members of the Educational Technology Group (ETG), Information Technology and the highest-ups in the district when it comes to technology.

Starting in a few weeks, rather than sending an email to 'filtering,' we will fill out an online form stating what the site is and why we want it blocked or unblocked and then the form must be approved by our principal.  That form is then sent out to all 7 members of the committee for review.  He also explained that they are working closely with the company the district hired to do the filtering to get some sites reclassified.  As of now, sites are blocked by software that classifies websites and blocks them according to classification.  By changing the classification, they will be able to unblock those sites.

After the meeting I discovered that filtering is something that even the heads of departments 'downtown' have limited control over.  For all of the complaining we do, it is not the people in IT or the people at ETG's fault.  It is (surprise, surprise) the lawyers who scare the district into such strict filtering that has little human input.  Hopefully, with this committee reviewing sites monthly, there will be more rhyme and reason into what we see filtered in our network.  I also found that I had friends down at 440 (the main district offices) who knew of my efforts and had my back.

The battle is far from over, and who knows if we will ever win, but I feel that this news today was a tiny victory along the way.  I still can't help but think of that old saying about the squeaky wheel.  Apparently my voice hasn't gone unheard (for better or for worse).

Battle photo courtesy of eisenbahner on Flickr
Filter photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Save Trees: Don't print me!