Looking Back on 2010

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As this year comes to a close, I decided to look back at some of my posts from this year. A lot has happened for me, my blog and educators. I have grown as a teacher and a blogger and I have learned much from my colleagues across the globe.

Here are 5 of my posts that received the most hits this year. I think they speak for the many of events in my career and the education world this past year.

1.) Reflections on Waiting for Superman

2.) My Top 10 To-Do List for Administrators

3.) Should We Ban Fiction from the Curriculum?

4.) I Miss My Old Brain

5.) EduPunks

Thank you to all of my readers for a year of growth and reflection.  I look forward to many more.

Have a wonderful New Year!
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Why Scale It?

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photo courtesy of FreeFoto.com
I recently read an article entitled, "Education's Status Quo to Parents: How Dare You Use the Parent Trigger and Make Decisions!" on the blog Dropout Nation.  I won't get into the details of the article, which was about the uproar over a private company helping parents in California use the "Parent Trigger" to call for the closing of a failing elementary school.  Rather, a comment by the author of the post grabbed me.

We had been engaging on various points back and forth in the comment area and one of my comments claimed that many of these privatized charter schools are not scalable. They cannot replace traditional schools on the larger scale. To which the author, RiShawn Biddle replied,
The obsession with scale, both among traditionalists and school reformers, from where I sit, fails to consider what actually happens in the real world. Which leads to another point: Your concept of a “corporate” approach is rather false. In the corporate world, there is rarely full standardization; companies will approach their operations, markets and array of products and services differently. Proctor & Gamble is different from Colgate-Palmolive and from Unilever. All are successful in the space in which they compete and satisfy the needs of their customers. Same is true for Apple and Microsoft. What these companies do have in common is what all successful companies share (including strong talent development, and clear focus on product, service and customers). What each company does that is particular to its corporate culture and historical development will not work for others.
I stopped to think for a minute.

While I find it heartbreaking to think of students as customers and schools as customer service--first of all, this applies only to private schools with tuition, second, it's a team effort so the road goes both ways.  I wonder about the argument, "it's not scalable."

We are constantly talking about how learning should be individualized, how we need to teach students, not subjects, how what works for one student may not work for another.  So why are we constantly seeking that one model that 'works?'

As I stated in my comment on the post:
Privatized charter schools are not scalable. What IS scalable is giving ALL schools the freedom they need to educate students. Give ALL parents the power to make changes in their schools not because they are privately run charters, but because their school has the freedom to meet the needs of the community rather than bow down to district mandates.
There are a lot of 'franchise' type charter schools out there right now (Mastery, KIPP, Harlem Success and others), and I won't expound on my feelings for some of them, but these kinds of school networks ARE trying to scale their model by taking over more and traditional public schools.  Whenever a traditional public school is taken over by a charter school, in my experience here in Philadelphia, the 'no excuses' environment and high expectation for parent involvement often causes huge attrition rates.  Where do these students go? Back to a traditional public school.

It seems that the more control the government wants to have over schools the worse off everyone is. In a district as big as Philadelphia, with over 200 schools, we have the federal government telling us what to do thanks to Race to the Top, and we are run by the state rather than an elected school board. We have programs that are mandated across the board for all low-performing schools (usually scripted programs) and decisions are made for sometimes all elementary schools across the board no matter what part of the city or what population the schools serve.

This is what scalability looks like.  And, as Biddle states, it doesn't work.

So when will politicians, teachers, unions, parents and edreforms galore stop looking for the magic solution and understand that any organization that deals entirely with people is complicated and defies the logic of scalability? We need schools that serve the communities and children in which they stand, not the blanket mandates of districts and large network franchises.

 




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Should We Ban Fiction From the Curriculum?

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Today I had a day-long conversation on Twitter about whether we should still be teaching fiction in the curriculum.  This was in response to a recent article by Grant Wiggins entitled "Ban fiction from the curriculum."  In the article, Wiggins makes the argument that fiction is essentially a sissy genre read by women at the turn of the century (the last century, not this one).  He also argues that most of the reading we do in our adult lives is non-fiction, and fiction reading is more of a hobby than a necessity.

I will agree that reading fiction for me was a hobby as a child. More like a necessity. I was always reading as a child. I devoured Dahl, Tolkien and L'Engle as well as The Dark is Rising Series, and The Chronicles of Narnia.  As I got older it became Herman Hesse, Vonnegut, Joyce, Huxley, Toni Morrison, Castaneda and others. I've even read the Bible cover to cover (I highly recommend it. The whole world makes a lot more sense if you have.)

By the way, none of these were required readings for school, though I was lucky to have a few teachers who let us pick a book from a list to read.

image courtesy of Celeste on Flickr
However, these books helped fuel my imagination. They kept me company when I moved to a new school and had yet to make friends.  They gave a voice to teenage angst and inspired me to write my own stories and poems. (Like my friend, Nick, I, too have published poems myself, though not online--yet.) In all, reading fiction helped me explore ideas, worlds and possibilities that would shape who I am today. My best teachers guided me through the process of unwrapping fiction and making connections between characters, across novels and across time periods.  I learned what it may have been like to be a slave, I studied how C.S. Lewis' religious life inspired his stories of Narnia. I sifted through beautiful imagery and marveled as a story unfolded, twisted, and was resolved through the power of skillful writing. It inspired me to write. Which I did nearly every day of my life for at least 5 years. (I have the journals to prove it.)

So what does this have to do with Wiggins?

I would agree that much of the fiction I was asked to read in school was poorly chosen (Sarah Plain and Tall is a horrendously boring book, as is The Long Winter), though to say that fiction is 'girlie' is a blanket statement that belittles some of the inspiring and talented authors listed above. There is nothing girlie about the dark thoughts of Damien or the death, betrayal and battles of Tolkien and Lewis.

I would also agree that in my adult life I tend to read more non-fiction that applies to the work that I do.  I now devour education books the way I used to devour Tolkien.  Some, I must admit are hard to get through (Marzano's The Art and Science of Teaching). I also have an RSS feeder full of blog posts, articles and resources that I sift through on a regular basis. That said, I find myself picking up books like Matilda or even the Narnia series to escape reality a little. I find that for every non-fiction book I read I am also reading a fiction book at the same time.

Recently, I began reading Salman Rushdie's acclaimed Midnight's Children as my fiction book (David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames is next on the list) to keep by my bedside.  I have to admit, I had to re-teach myself how to read this kind of fiction. It contains visceral images, metaphors that appear and re-appear throughout the story like thread holding together a tapestry, and the writing has an irregular rhythm to it like waves crashing on the shore. Needless to say, it's a beautiful piece of writing unlike anything I've read in the last 10 years or so.

Again--Wiggins?

Our brains work differently when we read non-fiction as opposed to fiction (this is my own observation, I can't quote any research). It is imperative that we are able to read non-fiction for obvious reasons--it is practical and pertains to our daily lives/needs. However, when I read non-fiction, I may be touched by a story, but it doesn't paint pictures in my head or weave intricate tales of daring and adventure (aside from a biographical/autobiographical story).  It reaches a different part of my brain, and (dare I say) my heart.  Sometimes we don't know how we feel until we read how someone else has expressed or described a feeling we can understand and with which we can empathize. 

All the mushy stuff aside, learning how to unravel a story through its metaphors, trying to decipher a character's motive or grasping an author's double entendre helps students work out real-life scenarios.  Think about all of the messages our students are bombarded with every day on the TV, Internet, radio and magazines. These texts, scripts, etc... were not written by researchers or scientists, they were written by writers. People who write fiction.

This is not to say that there is not poorly-written fiction out there that could be designated as 'trashy' or 'shallow' or the like. There are also poorly-written history books, poorly-written whitepapers and trashy research written by poor scientists.

So rather than ban fiction, let's re-think how we teach fiction and non-fiction.

  • give students choices
  • do away with the 'standard' books that everyone reads in 'x' grade
  • require students to read one non-fiction book for every fiction book they read
  • stop silo-ing texts into subject areas and teach reading across the curriculum
  • if a kid really hates fiction, then let them read what they enjoy reading
Thanks to Nick Provenzano, Chad Lehman and Lark for starting me thinking about this.

Please stop by and read Nick's take on the issue on his wonderful blog, The Nerdy Teacher.
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The Homework Conundrum

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I just finished reading an excellent book, Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools.  While it doesn't contain a lot of new ideas for me, it is still a great read that has ideas for me to reinforce in my classroom and a few things to try. It's an important book, I believe, for anyone who teaches in an urban setting (though it is universally applicable).

One of the chapters is about homework.  This is a contentious issue in urban schools. Many of my students go home to an empty house with no supervision, many have loud, chaotic homes that are not conducive to studying. I, personally, have never given homework since I am a 'specials' teacher. When I was an intern in a 1st grade classroom I remember giving homework from the workbook that matched whatever lesson in our literacy program we had done that day in class.  Many times the parent did the homework. Many times it just wasn't done and I honestly can't remember why I was assigning it aside from the fact that it was required by administration.

I love reading posts at Joe Bower's blog about Abolishing Homework, but I've been having some positive thoughts about homework today. Some of my thoughts have been reinforced through conversations on Twitter with Chad Lehman and David Andrade.

Here are some thoughts:

1) Homework isn't inherently bad. Worksheets and busy work are.
2) For many urban students, homework helps teach study habits and helps build skills for learning outside of school.
3) Bad homework IS pointless. It should challenge but not frustrate. It should require some thinking and, if possible, connect with students' lives outside of school. Its purpose should be to build anticipation or get students thinking about a lesson the next day.
4) Homework may not be as important for upper/middle class students, but not giving homework to students who don't have someone at home teaching them how to learn outside of school can do more harm than hurt.

Feel free to agree or disagree, but let me know your thoughts.
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Motivation in Urban Schools

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I have had this book sitting on my shelf for about 6 months now and, due to it's over-simplistic title have avoided picking it up. I'm happy I changed my mind.

Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools, by Richard L. Curwin, has turned out to be a gem.

On labeling students
Try doing substitution when you are tempted to use a label or when you hear another teacher use one. When you want to say a student is arrogant, for example, try "She defends herself" instead. Rather than calling a student a gangster, consider saying "That student has troublesome friends." If you find yourself starting to describe a student as lazy, switch to "I've yet to find the key to involving her."
 Make a list of commonly used labels--both labels that you use and ones that you've heard used--and find reasonable substitutions for them.
 On threats and rewards
  • Threats lead to finishing, not learning
  • Threats lead to an "I have to" mentality, not an "I want to" mentality
  • Threats satiate, requiring the use of stronger and stronger threats over time.
More on rewards and punishments

When deciding whether to use threats, punishments, and rewards, think like a physician: first, do no harm.
and my personal favorite:
I hear a variety of arguments for rewarding urban students when they do well academically or behaviorally. One argument goes thus: "So many urban kids are deprived of positive reinforcement. They never get rewarded for doing well. Often, they never get noticed. They need and deserve rewards." ...so what's the problem? Although I agree that urban students' lives frequently lack positive reinforcement and that offering rewards can, indeed, compel students to do their work, rewards do not necessarily result in learning.  If a reward is offered to solicit specific behavior, even desirable behavior, it is little more than a bribe, and bribes are not effective motivators. Looked at another way, bribes are simply threats in disguise. If I say to you, "If you do everything in this book, I'll give you a sticker to put on the cover," what I'm really saying is, "If you don't do what I say, I will deny you a sticker." The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control.

I'm only partially through the book, but after 7 years of teaching in inner city schools, I find the advice to be well crafted, realistic, practical and while not anything completely new for me, it is a great overview of best practices and a chance to reflect on my own practices.

If you teach in an urban school, or even if you don't, I suggest picking up a copy.
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When You Fail, I Fail

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This year has been a transformative year for me. Maybe it's because it's my 4th year in a lab, maybe it's because of my improved school environment or maybe it's because I've hit that point in my career where I can really begin to hone my craft.

One of my main focuses this year (as many of my readers may have already guessed) has been assessment. I have been discovering ways to know if my students 'get it.' Sometimes, even after what I think is a great lesson, I discover that they don't.

photo courtesy of annais on Flickr
The great thing? I actually know that they don't get it. Through developing methods for quick checks for understanding and by narrowing down my focus and learning goals for each 45 minute period I have been able to ensure that my students have mastered the skill or concept required to move them to the next part of a project or to push them to apply the skill to a new situation.

I walk methodically to each student during the class period checking off whether a student has mastered the skill I want them to have by the end of the period (i.e. "Show me how to use the paintbrush tool." or "What do you click if you want to leave this website and go to a different one?")  In this way, I can quickly pick up who 'gets it' and who doesn't. I have found this vital to ensuring that everyone is ready to move on and that I address any misconceptions before applying these skills to a new situation.

The biggest realization for me has been the acceptance that when my students fail it's usually a direct result of something I have or haven't done.

This fact has been proven to me a few times this year as I changed my approach or my method or allowed my students to revise projects based around feedback.  I have watched my students succeed and produce better and better projects and I smile inwardly as I hear them tell each other how to move files around and teach each other how to find applications with the Spotlight.

It's not all roses. I have stumbled and there have been lessons that failed. When this happens and my students obviously didn't get it or are not ready to move on, I have to take a step back and assess what they need to be prepared for the task or tasks ahead.

Today I told my 4th graders, "If you fail, that means that there's something that I didn't do right. If you fail, that means I failed."

It's a bold statement, but I'm starting to think that it's true.
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Thank you....

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I am honored to have been nominated for an Edublog award.

I also deeply regret not having completed my nomination post in time!

There are a TON of amazing blogs, groups and people nominated this year, so please take the time to vote.

I also want to extend my gratitude on behalf of the Edcamp Philly team for our nomination for Best Educational Use of a Social Network.  We are humbled.

Please take the time to vote for ALL of the nominated categories here:

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Taking a Look at Schoology

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I finally decided to jump in and give Schoology a try. I've been intrigued by its Facebook-like interface and its services like assignment creating, dropbox, discussions, blogging and gradebook ever since I first came across it at the TSETC conference last month.

This is what my home page looks like. I can't show the course home page due to students' full names being listed.  You can see the assignments and due dates on the right-hand side and different 'places' on the left-hand side.

I introduced it to my 6th graders this week. The first assignment we tried, after creating an account with an access code (no email required!) was a discussion question: "What is your favorite kind of poem and why?" We are in the middle of a poetry unit that their homeroom teacher and myself are teaching, so the question was relevant to the unit.

Their responses were on topic, thoughtful and one student even wrote, "This is cool."  We had experience with commenting, so it was probably familiar for them, but what made it even  more familiar was the format. It looks just like a newsfeed on Facebook, so they picked up how it worked with little direction.

Today they logged in again to access our first assignment: making a Voki that reads a poem they wrote. I easily added the assignment to our course page and included a link to Voki. The students then copy/pasted their Voki embed code into the comment area of the assignment.

I can see using Schoology to teach blogging with my students. They have never blogged before, so the ability to get them started in a "walled garden" is really exciting.

A few features that I love:
  • as an administrator you can edit student user permissions like private messaging
  • built-in gradebook that automatically populates with students who 'join' your course
  • no need for student email addresses
  • user interface
How I introduced it to my students:
  1. Guided students to the registration page.
  2. Wrote access code on the board so students could automatically enroll in my course.
  3. Had students choose an avatar for their profile.
  4. Guided students to the course home page to find the discussion question.
  5. Gave students time to answer the question and read each other's answers.
That took 45 minutes.

The second day the students navigated the site much more easily and I foresee it getting easier and easier.
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Punk Rock Musings

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I was reminiscing this weekend to the sound of Bad Religion when I realized that it was bands like them along with the Dead Kennedys and others that taught me what it was like to (literally) yell against injustice and corruption and plea for a better way.  As a teenager, punk rock provided me the impetus for not accepting the status quo, for pushing the envelope and for being fearless in the face of adversity and for going against the grain. 

In addition to the music there were self-published 'zines,' many of which contained articles written by students my age. The articles ranged from reviews of new albums to articles about corruption and political policies.  Of course, with the advent of the Internet, I'm sure many of these zines have fallen by the wayside.  I see a lot of similarity between these zines and the community of progressive educator bloggers on the scene right now.

As an adult, I still find power in many of the songs that had a huge affect on me as a teenager. Perhaps that's why I choose to label myself an edupunk.....

For your enjoyment, here are two Bad Religion songs that still seem poignant to my adult life 15 years after I first discovered them.

Against the Grain



Change of Ideas


well the sheaves have all been brought,
but the fields have washed away
and the palaces now stand
where the coffins all were laid
and the times we see ahead
we must glaze with rosy hues
for we don't wish to admit
what it is we have to lose

millennia in coming
the modern age is here
it sanctifies the future
yet renders us with fear
so many theories, so many prophecies
what we do need is a change of ideas
when we are scared
we can hide in our reveries
but what we need is a change of ideas
change of ideas, change of ideas
what we need now is a change of ideas
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Take the Power Back: Teacher-Run Schools

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I recently wrote a post on the excellent group blog, The Co-operative Catalyst, called "Who's the Boss?" in which I explored the idea of teachers being in charge of a school. More and more I'm feeling that not only is this a trend, but it is an important movement.

This past Thursday I attended TEDx Philly, a gathering of inspiring and motivating movers and shakers in Philadelphia. I was struck by the talks by Chris Lehmann and Simon Hauger who both signaled a need for big changes in education.

Lehmann, as many people know, started his own school here in Philadelphia within the School District itself but partnered with The Franklin Institute. His talk about how High School sucks and why it doesn't have to be that way, highlighted the authentic, real-world experiences The Science Leadership Academy offers its students. As a perfect example, his students were documenting the entire event on film with still photography and video.

Simon Hauger, the renowned West Philadelphia High School teacher whose students beat out the likes of MIT and Cornell in the Progressive Automotive X Prize for their hybrid vehicle, spoke as well about how school should be. In fact, he is in the process of organizing his own school, The Workshop for Democracy and Social Entrepreneurship. 

photo courtesy of Budzlife on Flickr
Educators in the classroom know that the current state of affairs in education is not working. As members of the front line, they know what works and what doesn't. They also know that the models that work do not always neatly fit into quantifiable charts and graphs that can be analyzed by computers and politicians.

I can't begin to count the number of times that I have had a conversation about starting 'our own school.' What's amazing is that most of these conversations as well as the concrete, real-world examples, have a different kind of leadership.

Leadership in schools started and run by teachers are democratic in nature. They have flat leadership and the entire staff works as a team. Some of these kinds of schools do have administrators, but these leaders are just that: leaders.  They are not The Boss and they do not manage their staff like a CEO of a business.  Hauger's school describes its leadership and organizational structure as one of democratic cooperation:
The school employs a shared leadership model in which roles, responsibilities, and accountability are clearly defined, but decisions are made collaboratively.  (http://www.workshopschool.org/drupaled/?q=node/26)
Teachers are ready to step up and take the reins of reform. We are ready to take responsibility for educating our students and we WANT to be held accountable.

What we don't want: to be held accountable according to an outsider's standards. We can and will hold each other accountable as part of a team. If the quarterback isn't throwing winning passes, then the whole team fails. We know that NCLB is not going away any time soon. Politicians will still want their line graphs and percentages. Let's show them that students can be successful in other ways that are still quantifiable and that test prep, bi-weekly benchmark testing and other methods that 'teach to the test' are not as effective as learning experiences that teach the whole child and force real-world problem solving.

This kind of learning is messy. Which is why we need a strong, supportive team for feedback, inspiration and accountability.

So let's stop looking for band-aid reforms and quick fixes. Let's start to rethink the leadership and organization of school itself. Let's start our own schools that are within districts, not experimental charter schools. Let's change the system from the inside and truly affect change. Let's take charge of our own buildings and do what's right for kids and their families.

If you have an example of a teacher-run school, please post a link or name in the comment area.



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I'm a Yuppie and I'm OK With It

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photo courtesy of Tim Morgan on Flickr
I had a recent epiphany that I am, technically speaking, a Yuppie (young, urban professional). I've always used the term to describe office/corporate types in suits who drive nice cars. But when I think about it, I am a young, urban professional. I might not wear a suit to work and I might not work in an office, but I have a business card, I live in the city and I am a professional.

This realization is an important one. I think more teachers need to consider themselves as working professionals. For some reason we tend to separate ourselves from professionals who work in offices or work in the business sector, yet most of us are just as or more educated than our corporate peers and we are skilled at what we do.

I once pulled a business card out to give to someone I had met and they were amazed that a teacher had a business card. We need to change the perception that we are any different than those who work in the business world. We network, we attend conferences, we have performance reviews and we had to work hard to get where we are.

I'm a yuppie and I've come to terms with it. Can you?
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Effective Feedback

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This past month my 6th graders have been working on videos in iMovie using photos and video I took of them completing a Science lesson. They handed them in last week after grading themselves using the rubric for the assignment. I then watched each one and graded it, stapling my rubric under theirs.

As I was grading them I realized that there were a lot of places for improvement. Rather than me taking the time to meet with each group individually I set aside a few classes as film reviewer sessions. We watched everyone's movie and gave positive feedback and constructive criticism. I modeled the first few comments and then let them try it.

What ensued was the most effective feedback session I've witnessed in a while, adults included.

They said things like, "I think your music was good, but your text went too fast." They even were able to take the feedback without trying to justify or respond.

The proof of the power of these feedback session was when I let them return to their projects to work on them based on the feedback they'd gotten.  I was blown away by how some students completely reorganized their images or deleted all of their text and changed it. Some re-recorded their opening videos or added smoother transitions.

This is a new group of students for me and it is their first attempt at an iMovie project. I was really proud of them. 

It took 2 1/2 class periods, but the self-assessment skills they learned were worth the time. I foresee these skills carrying into other projects as they review their final products.

Here is an example of one of the projects:

video 
Many of the students emulated things they liked about each other's videos, which is apparent in the above video, whose last clip had some inspiration from a classmate's improv video clip that was a hit.

Do you have any examples of using effective feedback with your students?
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A Lunar Lesson: Approaching the Two-Step Model

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My grade partner happens to be our 6th grade teacher, since there's only one of her in the building and she's right across the hall. She and I have been collaborating a lot this year, and her students see me 3 times a week.   She and I also share a love of Science, which has been very exciting.

Today, she brought her students over to the lab to use our Promethean board for a lesson on the Phases of the Moon. They have been studying Astronomy, but many of the students lack basic knowledge about the solar system. We decided to present the information in an interactive way using a flip chart and multimedia. (She had been using a pencil and a tin can to show them how the moon orbits the Earth.)  What ensued was a lesson that mirrored the two-step Constructivist model I've been reading about.

Before the lesson began, we made sure that we knew what the learning objectives were. For this lesson they were very simple:
  • Be able to name the phases of the moon and explain how and why they change. 
  • Know that the moon is a sphere and does not change shape.
  • To know that the moon waxes and wanes and be able to explain why.


Step 1: The Exploratory Phase
Students brainstormed what they knew already about the Moon. They then read through some facts, watched a video and a flash animation and then pulled the phases of the moon in order on the Promethean board to reinforce what they had learned about the names of the phases as well as vocabulary like 'waxing,' 'waning,' 'gibbous' and 'crescent.'

During this phase, we paused a few times to check for understanding, and then at the end we had each student write down and then tell us one thing they had learned.  We didn't grade them on the lesson, but we made sure to address any misconceptions, providing interventions as needed (when they didn't understand the concept of the Sun as a bunch of mini 'explosions' we showed them a National Geographic video) and checking for understanding.

The purpose of the Exploratory Phase is to use activities, dialogue and interventions to support and assess student learning, understanding and interest.

Step 2: The Discovery Phase

After lunch, the students were given a paper with all of the phases of the moon on it. They had to cut out the each phase and paste it in order on a sentence strip, labeling each phase and stating whether it was waxing or waning.  This is the performance part of the learning process. It is also the part of the process that is graded. The Discovery Phase is where the students 'show what they know' by creating a product or completing a task of some kind. This product shows the teacher whether or not they have mastered the objectives laid out at the beginning of the lesson.

I was very proud of my colleague, who had never used the Promethean Board before, but handled it with ease. I also think that our students will go home today with a much better understanding of the moon's phases as well as a deeper understanding of why and how they occur. I wouldn't be surprised if they look up more often at night to see what phase the moon is in!

This is what learning looks like.

One of the students asked, "Is this going to be one of those one-day things again?"  We have had a few hands-on, interactive and fun-filled lessons with technology and Science that have lasted only one day due to the nature of the curriculum and pacing schedule.  I said, "I hope not." In the back of mind I thought: he gets it. Even my student knows what real learning is.  And he's craving it.
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More Adventures in Checking for Understanding

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I'm almost halfway through a wonderful book, Applying Standards-Based Constructivism: A Two-Step Guide for Motivating Elementary Students. It has given me a lot of practical advice and it has given me a better understanding of some of my instructional practices and methods and at the same time justifies practices I've been doing for years.

I will write more about the Two-Step model later, but today I wanted to briefly reflect on a new method for checking for understanding that I found in the book. In the section on Assessment, the book stresses that teacher observation really is a valid form assessment because (gasp) teachers are professionals and are the most qualified to determine whether and how their students are learning.

The authors describe how you can easily gauge student understanding by having each student take 10 seconds to say one thing they learned at the end of class.

photo courtesy of farleyj on Flickr
Today I tried it with my 1st graders after their first time using MS Paint and was amazed as they stated, "I learned how to use the paint brush," "I learned how to use the magnifying glass to make my page bigger," "I learned how to change the color," and other things. What an 'ah ha' moment. In 2 minutes I had a snapshot of the actual learning that had happened during the 45 minute period. I tried it again with my 5th graders who had started typing stories. They shared, "I learned how to change my font," "I learned how to put my heading in the middle," and other statements that really helped me understand whether they had met the learning objectives of the class period. (They had.)

Part of the success I had today was due to the fact that I had clearly outlined the learning objectives at the start of the period and limited them to a few observable behaviors (put one space between each word, center a heading, use return key, use capitals and periods).  I was easily able to know whether the students had learned what I wanted them to in a matter of minutes.

I am still amazed by Geoffrey Canada's bold statement that he was a 'Master' teacher in his 5th year of teaching. I feel like this year, my 6th year of teaching, I am finally 'getting it' when it comes to assessment. It's a messy process, but I'm loving it.  I can't wait to see what I'm working on 6 years from now.
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My First Experiment with Checking for Understanding

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I just finished reading Checking for Understanding by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher.  It is one of the most practical books I have read in a while. In it I found techniques that I could immediately apply in my classroom.

Assessment is a huge challenge for me.

I see most of my students 45 minutes a week and I teach about 300 students over the course of a week. As a previous post discussed, I have recently been working on the learning goals and focus of my lessons and projects. Now that I have semi-solved that issue I am now working on assessment.

This year I also have a new classroom setup with an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) at the front of the room and the computer facing it. This makes it impossible for me to see the student screens if I'm demonstrating something at the front of the room (we don't have wireless, so a wireless computer controlling app for the iPhone is a no go).  In my former labs I didn't even have a wall to project on, so all demonstration had to happen through Apple Remote Desktop on the students screens. As a result, part of the challenge this year is getting used to a new classroom configuration.

These changes and realizations have caused me to be extra reflective in what I do and why in the classroom.

Wikimedia Commons
After reading Checking for Understanding I decided to use the 'thumbs' method to pace my demonstrations. As we move through the steps, for example, to insert an image into a project, I stop and tell students to 'show me your thumbs.' A thumbs up means "I'm with you and ready to move on" and a thumbs down means "stop, I need to catch up or I'm lost."

It has worked wonders for checking that everyone 'gets' what we are doing. I have found more of my students retaining the steps and more capable of applying their knowledge to other functions of the program. One of my 4th graders exclaimed today, "Ms. Hertz, I can insert a picture all by myself! I did it!" 

Of course, even a simple sounding procedure such as thumbs up/thumbs down needs to be practiced, so I'm excited at the possibilities for ensuring that my students are getting the base skills I want them to have so we can begin to push toward more complex, content-based projects.

Another goal of mine has been to have an assessment clipboard on which I have each child's name and a skill I want them to master. Today I walked around while my 2nd graders were practicing typing lowercase letters and uppercase letters using shift as well as sentences with capital letters and and periods. I was able to go student to student, checking that they knew how to make a capital letter and write a sentence with a period and a single space between their words. I now feel that I have a true snapshot of whether they have mastered the learning goals for the lesson.

In addition to these assessment goals, I have been clearly stating the learning goals at the beginning of the class period and restating them at the end. For instance, "Today you will....." and "Today we......" I've found it makes ME even better reflect on what we accomplished for the day.

A big factor, I believe, in my ability to implement these new practices is that, now in my 4th year teaching in a lab, I have most of the big stuff down so I can now focus on more reflective practice than before. I also have a school climate that is more organized and more predictable than my previous 5 years. This gives me more time to focus on my students, not on the fact that there are 5 teachers out and I have to cover a class for 3 hours.

I'm excited to keep trying new ways to check for understanding and to focus on how and what my students are learning in a more organized, deliberate and meaningful way.
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EduPunks

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My friend, Tom Whitby, an educator and blogger has put out a call for blog posts centered around positivity in education to counter all of the negativity going on.  I recently wrote a post on the Cooperative Catalyst blog called "What (Really) Works," trying to focus on what works in education rather than what doesn't. 

I refuse to get caught up in the "what's broken" conversations. It's the same reason I rarely sat in the lunchroom at my former schools. Sure, we all need some group therapy every once in a while, but when we focus too much on the negative, we start to lose sight of why we do what we do.

So I invite you, whether teacher or parent or community member, to be an 'Edupunk.'  Don't get sucked into negative conversations. If the people around you are talking about how schools are failing kids, how we are behind other countries in test scores, how we should fire bad teachers and expand charters, I challenge you to bring up the fact that there are lots of successful schools doing amazing things with students and teachers who are dedicated to doing whatever it takes not to raise student test scores but to raise students' consciousness and give them meaningful educational experiences that will prepare them not for a test or a job but for life.

If you need examples of some of these schools, districts and teachers, here are a few examples:

There are so many others I could name who work hard every day and take risks in the classroom in the name of innovation and authentic learning experiences.

So rather than focus on the media, let's be Edupunks who go against the negativity and do what's best for kids. If we talk enough about what works and what's working, we might actually get somewhere.
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Reconciling Tech and Content

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photo courtesy of K. Sawyer on Flickr
Just last week I had the first serious observation I've had in a long time.  I was observed during the first time my 3rd graders used the computers all year (no pressure!). I was nervous because this is my first year in the school, but I was also nervous because very few people, aside from aides and TSS workers have seen me teach. In the 7 years I worked in the School District of Philadelphia I was officially observed a total of 3 times. Two of those observations were before I was even certified.

The best part about my observation was the post-conference. The Instructional Coach who observed me had a concise and specific goal for me to work on, and it was one that I knew I needed to reconcile.  She told me that I needed to decide what exactly my learning goals for my students are.

As someone who believes that technology should not be taught as a separate class, teaching in a lab is a bit of a conundrum. 

I want to make sure that what I'm teaching my students is relevant to what they are doing in their classrooms. I want my class to be more than just learning how to do x, y and z. However, I also realize that my students have never been taught how to do much on the computer at all (the whole Digital Native thing is farce, believe me).

Part of the post-conference conversation was about learning goals for my lessons. I have to make a decision. Is the learning goal about the content or the tool?

In a perfect world, I would love for the tool to be a pathway to understanding content. First, however, my students need to know how to use the tool.

So to reconcile this dilemma I have realized that I can teach the tool and make my main learning objective be focused around the tool while using a relevant topic or concept that is aligned with the grade-appropriate curriculum to teach the tool. Perhaps later in the year, or even next year, once my students have enough tools under their belt, we can begin to explore content, not tools. Until then, my role as a lab teacher is to provide my students the time to explore a variety of tools so that when it comes to choosing what tool is right for the job, their belt has a few options in it.
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Reflections on Waiting for Superman

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This past Friday was a half day at my school for Professional Development. As a nice surprise, our CEO took the entire staff to see Waiting for Superman at a movie theater downtown. It was a very thoughtful (and exciting) outing.

As I sat in the theater before the movie started, I realized that I was going into the movie with a lot preconceptions and I already had a sick feeling in my stomach.

As the movie progressed, I realized that there was very little in the movie that I didn't know already. I recognized Geoffrey Canada's voice before I even saw him. I had learned about the Rubber Room in NYC 2 years ago when This American Life dedicated part of a show on them with interviews with actual Rubber Room teachers. Most people in the theater, including my colleagues, were learning about a lot of things for the first time. The other thing the movie failed to mention? Mayor Bloomberg and the union have agreed to do away with rubber rooms altogether.

Throughout the movie I was frantically typing notes into my iPhone, and trying really hard not to be a curmudgeon. I'll be honest, I did yell out a comment or two, but I tried to control myself.

Who are the Real Superheroes?
To me, the real heroes in this movie are not the teachers or the education 'reformers,' but the families and parents of the children the movie follows. We watch parents who have struggled themselves but have made a conscious decision to put their children first. We see a parent who takes a 45 minute subway ride just to visit a school that her child has a tiny chance of getting into. These parents are empowered in that they seem to know what their options are, they see the value of education for their child and they are willing to do whatever it takes to give their child the best education they can.

To me, the shameful thing is that while this movie shows the dedication and love of these parents, it chooses not to celebrate these engaged and caring parents. Instead, it chooses to demonize teachers and unions and lift up a small group of 'experts' as the true heroes of education reform.


Public Schools are Evil
At one point, the movie states that these poor performing schools are doing damage to the neighborhoods in which they exist. I can't argue that fewer graduates means more youth on the streets and higher crime rates, but what the movie doesn't discuss is the deeper issues that influence students outside of school. If you know more people who have been to prison that have gone to college (a statistic from the movie) a school has a huge hurdle in helping you understand the importance of school. This hurdle is magnified by uninvolved or neglectful parents.

What really saddens me is that what the movie doesn't discuss is the fact that many of these low-performing schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are teaching scripted programs, have cut out art, music and other creative arts and teach primarily to the test. Of course a student in a school like this would find no value in education. Worst of all, the teachers have little say in the introduction and implementation of these programs. This is NOT a generalization. I taught for 5 years in a school like this. We were nearly at the bottom of the list of state test scores.

What IS evil about public schools?

The wall in my old classroom.
Yes, there are a number of poor-performing or novice teachers (though for some reason if you're a Teach for a American teacher this stigma doesn't apply to you) and yes, it does require a series of paperwork to 'get rid' of a poor-performing teacher. However, the true evil is many traditional public schools are over-enrolled, under-staffed, under-funded and in many cases, the buildings themselves are falling apart.

The world Jonathan Kozol described in 1991 in his book Savage Inequalities has not changed much. In fact, Camden, which sits a stones throw across the river from Philadelphia, is, I believe, still one of the lowest performing districts in the country.

Teachers Unions are Evil
One of the most disturbing parts of this movie is the way it depicts teachers' unions. There was ominous music playing when AFT president, Randi Weingarten appeared on screen and many in the audience, including those in my staff may as well have booed at her.

Throughout the movie, the Guggenheim refers to the fact that the education reformers always find that 'the union gets in the way.' At one point, Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek writer, actually used the term "menace" when referring to unions. This from a man who writes about the economy and from a magazine who wrote the 'brilliant' cover story: The Key to Saving America's Education or Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers. (To which I responded: Shame on You, Newsweek)

I have my own issues with unions, and I'm not a gung-ho union supporter. That said, I understand their importance and their place in education.

It a complete and utter myth that union teachers are lazy and do the bare minimum because they can. Some of the best articles I have read about education have come from American Educator, a publication of the AFT.  The union and its members is dedicated to celebrating good teachers and good teaching.

The movie describes what some districts call the 'lemon dance.' This is a process by which administrators agree to shuffle around their poor-performing teachers to share the burden rather than fire them (wait, we should blame that on the teachers?).

This process happens constantly in the School District of Philadelphia with administrators. A strong administrator will be pulled out of his or her school to go 'fix' a school with a poor-performing administrator. This poor-performing administrator is then either shuffled to a new school or put behind a desk at the central offices. Principals have a union, too.

For the 7 years I taught in the unionized School District of Philadelphia I met teachers from all ends of the spectrum. 90% of them were talented, hard-working and dynamic. They had classes of anywhere from 25-30 students with no aid. They weathered fights and lock downs, they taught students were neglected, malnourished, students with a variety of learning difficulties, and they did this often in a building with a broken heating system, no air conditioning, peeling paint, broken stairwells and a schoolyard that looked like a prison yard.

The other 10% were like the 10% in any other profession.

So why did they still have jobs? Yes, partially it was because of due process. Not tenure, as some would call it, but what I would like to call 'due process.' (Thanks to Ken Shelton for reminding me of that distinction.)  Some of these teachers were receiving extra support and had already been disciplined. Some had not been disciplined, but were offered extra support by school coaches. 

Others? Lord knows. In some cases, everyone in the school knew they were a poor teacher, but nothing was ever done about it. In my opinion, it may have been too much of an effort to go through the discipline process. Or, maybe certain steps had been gone through, but then the administrator never pushed further.

Why, you ask, have due process at all? Why make it so difficult? It may seem simple enough. Do away with due process and you can get rid of these poor performing teachers more easily.

Here's why.

Many administrators here in Philadelphia solve the paperwork conundrum by just writing teachers out of the budget. However, they usually don't write out the poor teachers. Instead, they write out the people who speak their mind, the people who stand up for themselves. The people who won't accept the status quo.

Without due process, without a union, these people would essentially be out of a job just because they stood up for what they believed in. I am not speaking hypothetically here. I personally know of two people who were written out of the budget for these reasons.

So why else are unions important?

In a large, urban district, a lot goes on in any given day. A teacher may be dealing with a dangerous child who has destroyed a room 2 or 3 times without repercussion. They may be publicly teased or harassed by a co-worker, an administrator or a student. A union is there to help them out.

The current system of tenure (due process) does get a few things wrong.

I was granted tenure by the School District after 3 years and a day as any employee is. However, I had not received the necessary official observations required of a non-tenured teacher. Despite that fact, I was granted tenure automatically.

That system is inherently flawed. No one really knew what was going on in my classroom.

I wonder, as a side note, how Michelle Rhee herself kept her job after applying masking tape to her students' mouths during her first year as a Teach for America teacher.  I'll tell you one thing, though. Her union would not have been able to do much if she asked them for help.

However, focusing the conversation on tenure is a waste of breath. It is, in my opinion, the least of our worries at this point.

Divide and Conquer
What I feel that this movie has done is successfully pit 'us' against 'them.' Charter versus traditional public, union versus non-union.

I see this in my day to day conversations and it breaks my heart. Recently, on Facebook, a friend told me that I was part of the "Charter school movement." I had no idea, first of all, that there was such a thing. This statement just reaffirmed my beliefs that we are moving away from the real issue, which is educating children.

My response has become my personal mantra:

I'm a part of the educating kids movement. Charter, regular public, whatever works ;) I think all schools should be free to do what they think is right for kids. So do most of my union buddies.


Why the Movie Appeals to Us
One thing that Guggenheim does to reel the audience in is to use scenes that depict school the way it looked when 'we' went to school. The desks are in rows. The kids are using pencil and paper. They are taking tests. There is some carpet time with a story. He also intersperses some school scenes from the 1950s and 60s. There is a warm sense of familiarity to the scenes that helps pluck our heartstrings.

The problem?

from Wikimedia Commons
None of the scenes depict a truly innovative or progressive school. School just doesn't look like that anymore. To see what progressive and innovative education actually looks like just see George Lucas' response to the movie and watch the videos at the bottom of the post.

What is it That Teachers Do?
If you were hoping to get that answer from this movie, be prepared to be let down. There is little insight, aside from the clip of a teacher whose use of rap songs to teach the alphabet and other concepts inspired KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Other than that, it's all similar to stock footage. One can also assume that the teachers they filmed were at the charter schools and not a local public school where pretty much the same kind of teaching probably goes on.

What you will see, however, are images of kids heads opening like a door with a teacher pouring knowledge into their brains. Because we all know THAT'S how teachers do their best teaching.

Some Surprises
There were a few comments about the profession that really amazed me. One came from Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. In describing his path to teaching and his experiences, he stated that he became a Master teacher in his 5th year of teaching.

I was floored.  I am in my 6th year of teaching and I am hardly a master. In fact, I believe that there is no such thing as a Master teacher. If you call yourself a Master, it implies that you have no more to learn, that you have mastered everything you need to know. Anyone who has ever taught before knows that, as a teacher, you can never master everything you need to know about teaching. Becoming a teacher means dedicating yourself to a life of learning new things.

The second surprising comment came from Michelle Rhee, who stated that she came into her job as Chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, knowing that she'd be a one-term chancellor. She is also a TFA graduate. What does it say about her motives or dedication to students and families to come into such an important, powerful job with that mindset?

What it Gets Right
As I went into the movie trying very hard not to be a curmudgeon, I made a point of finding parts of it that I agreed with.

The first statement I agreed with was actually by Michelle Rhee. She stated that after all of the trials and tribulations she had been through that in the end, it's "always about the adults." While we may not agree on why that is or which adults we are speaking about, it is entirely true that in the discussion and implementation of school reform, it is most often the students who are thought of last.

The movie also makes an important case for the detrimental effects of tracking students. However, it is not necessary to attend a charter school to avoid tracking. Many schools have done away with it. It's a shame that the one featured has not yet.

I also agree with the movie's statement that we have an obligation to other people's children.  Now who 'we' are in the movie I'm not sure, but I would agree that we are in this together.  I would also agree with Guggenheim's statement that "schools haven't changed, but the world around them has." This indeed, is one of the roots of the problem. Too bad he didn't take the time to show schools who are changing with the times and it's a shame that he says that almost at the end of the movie.

Final Thoughts
All in all, Guggenheim has produced a film that is heart wrenching and has a clear message. It provides a solid jumping-off place for dialogue to happen.

Let's just hope that the dialogue happens and that people learn to read between the lines of a well-produced and well-funded movie.

I hope that others will join me in my mantra.

I'm a part of the educating kids movement. Charter, regular public, whatever works ;) I think all schools should be free to do what they think is right for kids.

Other posts about the movie:


Abandoning Superman - John T Spencer
Seeing Waiting for Superman - Kirsten Olson
We're Not Waiting for Superman, We're Empowering Superheroes -- Diana Rhoten
Larry Ferlazzo's list of posts about Waiting for Superman 

An excellent description and explanation of Charter Schools:


The Toll-- Chad Sansing


Superman image from Xurble on Flickr

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Authentic Writing

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My 6th graders just completed their Digital Citizenship websites using iWeb. I am very proud of them as this is the first project we have completed together and it is the first project they have completed using Macs.

As I have no server yet, I had the students hand their work into my favorite site, drop.io. They were instantly able to see and comment on each other's sites. I handed out our rubric to help them focus their comments on our guidelines (Layout, Graphics, Fonts, Spelling & Grammar and Content Accuracy). I told them they had a chance to 'practice what they preach' when it comes to Digital Citizenship by following good netiquette when leaving comments.

As I expected, there were a few mean comments (this is not the first time I've done this lesson so I was prepared) so we discussed how to handle anonymous bully-like comments. I was able to delete the comments that were borderline inappropriate, also modeling how webmasters can decide what they want to remain on their site and what they want to take down.

From reading their comments it was obvious that they knew what made a good website, that they had read and understood the rubric and that they had read each other's text. In addition, I was able to view all of the websites and comments in one place and I left each student a personal message about his or her project.

There is huge opportunity, when letting students share and respond to each other's work, for deeper reflection, higher levels of motivation, and a classroom culture built around constructive criticism, higher order thinking and collaboration.  No longer are they writing and creating for the teacher, they are writing and sharing for each other. I am excited to see what effect this has on their writing process and progress.

In the words of Neil Postman:
Once they have become literate, most people have intellectual and emotional powers that are irrevocable.
Postman also asks:
When was the last time you wrote a 'composition?'
In the 'real' world, we write with a purpose. We write from the heart, we don't write cookie cutter, 'constructed responses' that follow a pattern and a uniform structure. (Can you find the topic sentences in this post?)
Don't you think a school year ought to be a continuing exchange of ideas, rather than a series of staccato "lessons" and "units?"

quotes from Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 1971
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Review of Intel's Classmate PC

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I was lucky enough to be asked by Intel to review their convertible laptop, the Classmate PC. Upon opening the demo model I received in the mail, I definitely knew that this was a 'cool' product. How, I wondered, though, would it be different than a regular laptop and how would I see it being used in the classroom? First, I dug through its basic features, as described below.


The Desktop
The Classmate PC came with both Windows 7 and the Inspirus desktop that Intel has created for student use.  It also supports Windows XP and Linux operating systems. Personally, I think the modified desktop isn't necessary for students over the age of 6 or 7. After 3 years of teaching students in grades K-6 in a computer lab, I find that students learn how to use and navigate the computer easily without needing training wheels.  While using the Classmate PC, my students found it a little confusing when the desktop switched to the Blue Dolphin Quick Launcher, which provides a list of programs. While most of the programs appear in the Quick Launcher, only those that have been approved by the account manager will open.

When setting up a student account, the Inspirus desktop can be adjusted to the child's age or it can be set with a regular Windows desktop. The child can change his or her desktop background and bottom tray (similar to a Mac's 'dock') to personalize the machine. Also similar to a Mac, students can use an application similar to Stickies to put reminders on their desktop.

The Browser
The Inspirus desktop comes with a browser made with students in mind.   With managing options, I could see this being a great advantage for 1:1 programs in which the students take laptops home.  Schools would not have to worry about where students are navigating to, especially since, unlike in school, there may not be an adult watching them.  When a student is using the browser, they cannot type in their own URL. The adult who manages the account provides a list of 'Favorites' and bookmarks where the child can go.  When setting up the account, you can also choose to have Internet Explorer set as the browser if the Safe Browser is too limiting.

Power and Battery
The Classmate PC has pretty good battery life. It comes with an extra long power cord that could be helpful when working outside or in a classroom as it provides more mobility should the battery life fade 'on the job.'

Input/Output
Like a true laptop, the Classmate PC has a VGA port, and it has 2 USB ports, one on each side. It also has 2 headphone slots (great for collaboration) and a microphone jack.  It also has both an SD card slot and a mini SD slot, which is great for editing images and video captured on the go.

Networking
It was very simple to connect the Classmate PC to my home wireless network.  It also searches automatically through the network for a 'teacher machine' and asks if you would like to connect. Students can connect to a teacher machine to share files and for monitoring and demonstrating purposes.

GPS
While I did not try out the computer's GPS, I read that it is built into the computer. This could be great for Geocaching activities.

Memory
The model I was sent had about an 80G hard drive, though from the Spec sheets I've seen it usually comes with anywhere from 8G-32G.  Sizable space for a little machine.

Other Child Safety Controls
A parent or teacher can also set up a bonus points system where a child can earn bonus points for playing educational software. Non-educational programs deduct points. I'm not sure how the computer knows which applications are educational and which aren't, but for a parent, this could be a great way to keep track of what your child is doing on the computer. For a teacher, it could also serve as a management tool.

While not a safety control, the laptop does come with a water-resistant keyboard and states that it has passed a 50-60cm drop test. (I didn't test that feature out as you can imagine.)  It also has a built-in handle for easy portability and it has a slot for a lock should you want to lock the laptop to a table or desk.

The Software
The machine comes standard with a SmartNotebook Student Edition license which does not require your school to have Smartboards.  The software allows students to create content and it is optimized for touch screen capabilities. This software allows for the teacher to manage and  monitor student machines as well as broadcast and share content. It also allows for student content to be shared among peers or to be shared on an IWB. When a student connects to the school network, he or she can instantly connect with their teacher's machine.

The MyScript application, which allows students to take handwritten notes using the touch pen on lined notebook paper is fun and, for lack of a better word, 'cool.' However, both myself and my students had trouble getting our words to look fully formed on the screen. This may improve with practice, as it does on an Interactive Whiteboard.  As a result of the difficulty writing with the pen, the application didn't recognize all of my students' handwriting. I could see, however, this application being useful for writing observations or for those students who want to take notes in tablet mode.

As for educational value of MyScript, I could see it being used by students with limited typing skills, or when students are on the go and not sitting in a classroom or at a table or desk.  It would be great for school trips or for writing observations during an outdoor science lesson.  As for use in the classroom, I think that the keyboard would be less frustrating. However, one of my students who struggled with using the application still said he enjoyed using it, even though he couldn't properly write his own name using it.

Art Rage application in tablet mode
By far the best application that came with the computer was the ArtRage Paint drawing application.  This application is available for Windows and Mac, but seems to have been optimized for the touch screen for the Intel Classmate PC.  In tablet mode, it is like having a pad of paper and a box of drawing and painting tools at your fingertips. My students really liked it. This, too, could be used for outdoor Science lessons or even observational drawings for art class or for a class trip.

The Easy Learning application, which is essentially math problems paired with animation, was not that impressive. I did receive a trial version, but it only provided repetitive math problems about multiples of 10. The games were not leveled and did not seem to be age appropriate for very young students.

Inspirus Mail is an easy to use, simple mail program that looks promising. It is set up by the account administrator and looks pretty easily managed and monitored.

In talking with the designers,  I also learned that Kidspiration and Inspiration are optimized to work with the Classmate PC and that McGraw-Hill is selling Classmate PCs w/an e-book bundle and interactive textbooks.  While I am not advocate of teaching from a textbook, for schools looking to embrace the e-book trend, it is an option.

The Stylus
The Classmate PC comes with a stylus pen that can be easily stored in the side of the machine and is attached to the machine by a thin cord. Most of the applications can be controlled either with the stylus or with the mouse.  While my students used the stylus mostly in tablet mode, they also used the stylus when in laptop mode. The stylus can be used in Inspirus Desktop mode and in regular Windows mode. If you are in tablet mode and want to type, you can either click on the stylus icon on the task bar or click on the icon when it appears next to the cursor. Then you can write what you want with the stylus into the box that pops up and it will converted into type that you can then enter into the screen. I was able to fill out the search box in Internet Explorer this way.

The stylus can be calibrated easily if needed, much like an IWB, and I did not experience many issues with it being unresponsive. The biggest issues were with forming words and letters that the software could recognize. This is no different than when using a pen with a Promethean board.

The Camera and Microphone
The Classmate PC comes with a rotating camera and a microphone. My students were able to walk around with the PC in laptop mode and take video.  The ArcSoft Webcam Companion application for capturing photos and videos is easy to use, as is the editing software that comes with it. The editing software is limited, however, to the basics: rotating, cropping and resizing. Students can also annotate photos and there is an e-book feature, though it is more like a photo slideshow.  These features would be great for capturing experiences outside the classroom to share or blog about.

The camera can be rotated 180 degrees and works both in laptop and tablet mode.  There are controls on the side of the screen for the camera when working in tablet mode.

Student Reviews
Of course, my students were immediately struck by the 'coolness' of the machine. None of them had trouble figuring out how to convert it from laptop to tablet mode, even without instructions.  They stated that it "feels nice on your hands" because of the soft rubber casing, and they thought it was "not too heavy" and that it was a good size because it could "fit in your backpack."

watching video and editing photos in tablet mode
They found trackpad easy to use, and they felt that the camera and microphone quality were great as well as the sound quality.

When they were asked what they would change, they replied that they would love for it to be a touch screen without the pen and that they would like it to be even smaller.  Otherwise, there was nothing for them that really needed an overhaul in design.

When asked whether they would prefer a Classmate PC or a traditional laptop, the students overwhelming stated the Classmate PC because it has "more features" and because it's small enough to go anywhere.  

Introducing Classmate PC into the Classroom
When I asked my students what they would use the Classmate PC for, they replied "book reports" and "art projects."  These responses show how important it is for the teacher using these in his or her classroom to use the features and tools in innovative ways as well as how in some cases, much of the responsibility for teaching how to use these tools for learning will fall on the teacher. As such, I do not suggest that schools go out and purchase a whole class' worth of Classmate PCs thinking it will transform the learning in their school. Like any 1:1 program, introduction of the Classmate PC requires thoughtful planning and professional development for the teachers.

Intel does offer professional development courses through their Intel Teach Programs, and I did notice some free course offerings.

The Cost
The Classmate PC is sold through individual vendors, so the price varies. It starts around the mid-$300s, which makes it about the same cost as a standard netbook, but with more features.

Final Thoughts
I would recommend the Classmate PC if an elementary school were going to a 1:1 program, but I would not suggest it for students over 6th grade. The machine is best for younger students as older students may find it a bit childish. It is a great computer for mobile learning or if students have to take their computer back and forth to school. With all but the youngest students, I would use the regular Windows desktop as the Blue Dolphin utility and the Inspirus Desktop may be too limiting and childish for older students.

If you have a strong, inquiry-based Science program at your school, this machine would also be great in a lab setting due to its sturdy nature, small size, portability and its various features such as video/image capture and the ability to connect peripherals such as microscopes and other lab equipment.

The Classmate PC has great features that can make for powerful learning experiences and it simple to use. If your school does not plan on taking these out of the classroom and creating mobile learning environments, or if your students do not take laptops home, then I would stick with a regular laptop. The screen and size of the Classmate PC is not optimal for completing intricate classroom projects, especially multimedia projects. While none of my students complained about the Classmate's size, they also were not thinking of it as a content-creating device but more of a consuming device.

If your school IS planning for more mobile learning, then the Classmate PC is the perfect tool.


For more about the Classmate PC, check out these links:

Interactive Manual
Spec Sheet (pdf)
Press Sheet
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