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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.
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.
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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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:
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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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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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 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.
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
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.
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.
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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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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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 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.'
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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:
Spec Sheet (pdf)
Creative Commons License
Philly Teacher by Mary Beth Hertz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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