2009: Reflections on a Transformative Year


I'm not usually one to follow the crowd, but as I saw people tweeting out their 'end-of-year' blog posts, I figured that it might be a good idea, even if just for selfish reasons. 2009 has been a transformative year for me.  It has marked a complete shift in my professional life and as a result, my career has become more fulfilling and exciting.

I did not accomplish all of this on my own.  It was a slow progression, starting with the ISTE conference in June, when my world was expanded beyond my classroom, school and even district walls.

My year in review:

December 23, 2008: I started this blog with my very first post: The Purpose
June 22, 2009: I joined Twitter with the handle: mbteach
June 27: My first day at NECC 09, a life-changing experience.
July 11: I start to realized that my new Twitter and online world is taking over my life. Vicki Davis leaves a comment on my blog!
July 16: I decide to make a plan to go "OTG" when I need to in order to find balance in my life.
July 20: I attend my first Edublogs Elluminate session about Online Identity with Di Benard
August 4: I reflect on my summer job that includes very little technology and I use Glogster for the first time.
August 14: I reflect on my first #edchat experience.  Little did I know that #edchat would take over the Twitterverse for educators!
September 9: I realize and reflect on how important my PLN is to keeping me sane and to providing a strong community with which to learn and explore.
September 12: I speak with Aparna Vashisht from Parentella about #edchat and connecting teachers with parents and vice versa.  She later invites me to participate in the #140 character conference in LA, but I'm moving into my new house that weekend!
September 25: Received my Masters degree diploma in the mail from Saint Joseph's University. Completed an Instructional Technology Specialist program.
October 2: Shelly Terrell asks me to do a guest blog post on her blog, Teacher Reboot Camp. I write about Education in America.
October 5: I close on my new house!
October 9: A colleague and I take a group of students to a gallery to learn about David Kennedy, a Philadelphia artist from the 19th century.  I realize afterwards how important it is to get students out into the real world and expose them to new experiences.
October 20: I get my Google Wave account and begin playing around with Doug Peterson and Andrew Forgrave. 
October 21: I start a blog for our history project and make the first post. The response from my PLN astounds and excites my students. I start to realize how motivating writing in such a forum can be for students.
November 2: I attend a meeting at the district's main offices and receive an iPod touch without being told why or how I'm to use it in the classroom.  I also learn that I am infamous for my constant requests to have certain sites unblocked so I can use them.  A lesson in poor technology planning and in being a squeaky wheel.  Filtering issues start to look hopeful. Kind of.
November 14: I attend my first BarCamp, which proves to be a perfect storm of social media. I connect with fellow educators Kevin Jarrett, Dan Callahan, Rob Rowe, Kristen Swanson and Ann Leaness through Twitter and GoogleWave.  We use Google Docs to plan a session in a few hours and present it right before another Twitter colleague, Mike Ritzius and his fellow educators.  We are now in the process of planning a education-focused BarCamp (EduCamp).
November 23: One of my 6th grade classes video conferences with Gerardo Lazaro's 6th graders in Lima, Peru.  Gerardo and I used Skype, Wikispaces and Google Chat to pull it off. Hurray Social Media!  I see the power of communication across continents for my students.
November 26: I sit next to the chief financial officer for the School District of Philadelphia and learn a few things about 'Us vs. Them' attitudes. I realized it's stupid to play the blame game when students' futures are at stake.
December 9: I learn that my blog has been nominated for an Edublog Award. I am thrilled, honored and humbled by the recognition.  I also receive a challenge from my friend, Shelly Terrell to write about teachers who inspired me growing up.  I immediately jump at the opportunity and send the challenge out to more friends and PLN members.
December 10: I run a district-wide webinar on Social Bookmarking. A lot of teachers I 'know' through the district's tech listserv attend, and it has very positive feedback. I think: WOW, I have a PLN here in the district as well, how cool!  I also think: WOW, I can't wait for the next one. I'm gonna sneak some Twitter people in, for sure!
December 17: I hold a meeting with 15 other teachers in my building to put together for a plan to improve our school's climate.  It is a wonderful meeting and I feel the power of teachers taking initiative rather than leaving decisions  and actions up to administration.  I create a Google Group to keep track of asynchronous discussions.
December 19: Mother Nature dumps 2 feet of snow on Philadelphia. I get a lesson in cooperation and teamwork.

My Year in Reflection:
Not everything this year has been celebratory or transformative.  There have been some bumps and will continue to be along the way in 2010. My school has been relocated this year to 59th Street and Baltimore Avenue for this current school year so that a new school can be built at our former location at 58th and Media Streets.  I have not driven past the construction, though my students tell me that there is a foundation built.  At least (for now) Google Maps has the old school and yard still there:

View Larger Map

A new school isn't really a reason to feel sad, we needed it sorely. What is sad is the way the school culture has not improved, and may have even gotten worse in the temporary location.  We have been practically taken over by the district and the region, teaching scripted programs for an hour and a half each day. Our teacher are disheartened, the recess yard and lunchroom are chaotic and, at times, hazardous, and students are often left unattended during the day due to support staff mismanagement.

In addition, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (my union) announced, right before Winter Recess, that they are once again extending the contract. We have been working under an extended contract for over 2 years now.  Then, Jerry Jordan, our union president makes a statement about the new Race to the Top program and how that will affect schools in Philadelphia.  My school is already in corrective action---will we become a "Renaissance School," with 50% or more of the staff to be replaced along with the principal? Luckily my position as a lab teacher is an important one (everyone needs a lab teacher, right?) and the way I have made myself known this year throughout the district should make it easier for me to keep my job.

In my personal life, I have had some transformative events as well.  I bought a house and have spent this week making it more inhabitable. Today I am nursing bruised palms from scraping up tile from the basement floor.  My friends all joke that owning a house is my 'grown-up card,' that now I'm officially a grown up.  Sometimes, as I'm sitting in the house the thought: "Wow, this is MINE" passes through my mind.  Do I feel like a grown up? Sometimes.  
Wait, is THIS what adulthood looks like?

Or is it this?

Looking back over 2009, I have grown up more than I could imagine. I have learned more this year than seems humanly possible. It is all thanks to the wonderful people I have met through Twitter and in my district who are innovative risk-takers, who take the bull by the horns and don't put up with bull.  I am thankful for them coming into my life and I look forward to another great year in 2010.  While I'm sure the learning curve will not be as steep as it was this past year, I am certain I will never stop learning and trying new things.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to those of you who subscribe to this blog, whether you have participated in comments or not.  When I started this blog almost exactly a year ago, I had no idea where it was going and I am elated that others are interested in my ramblings.

Best wishes to everyone in 2010!

Read On

The Power of Social Media: Crossing Continents


Last month I had the amazing luck to receive a tweet from a fellow educator, Gerardo Lazaro, who teaches at St. George's College in Lima, Peru.  He asked me if I was interested in doing an online collaboration project with his students.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity.  We weren't really sure exactly what kind of project we wanted to do, though we knew we would do it with 6th graders since he teaches middle school and the oldest students I teach are in 6th grade.

The Planning
Finally, after a few weeks of playing "Twitter tag," we found time to Skype and discuss an online video conference with our classes.  During our 2 hour Skype session, we pulled together the whole plan.  We were able to share our vision for the conference, share links and use his classroom wiki to do our planning. While Skyping, I pulled up his wiki on my computer by clicking on the link he provided in the Skype chat.  I immediately clicked on the 'join' button and he approved me to begin editing the wiki.

We had decided to have our students research a little about each others' city based around these four areas: History, Culture, Geography, Political and City.  We split up the topics, each choosing one to edit.  When we were done, I used an iframe code to embed the wiki page and project description we had created on his wiki into a page I created for the project on my wiki.

When the whole thing was done and we signed off for the evening, I was blown away. In 2 hours we had planned a whole project and were ready to go for Monday.

That is the power of social media.

On Monday, we tested the last hurdle of the project: the actual video part of the conference.  My district blocks Skype (apparently it 'does something' to our network), we couldn't get iChat to work because he doesn't have a Mac, we couldn't get AIM to work when we tried earlier in the week at work, or Oovoo either.  Finally, my brain clicked: Google chat with video!  We had used Google chat before to connect during the school day, so I knew it wasn't blocked. At 8am Monday morning, 4 hours before our meeting, we tested it out. It worked like a charm.

The Meeting
At noon, my 6th grade class came down to the lab.  I had arranged the room so that the iSight camera on my Macbook was trained on them, and I had the desktop microphone I had purchased earlier in the week ready to go.  I called Gerardo up and there they were--a classroom of 6th graders smiling back at us.  We started with the typical nervous laughter, smiles and waving, and we started asking each other questions based on some of the research that we had done on each others' cities.  At one point our students danced for each other and we were able to show each other our favorite drinks (a purple drink for them and Coke for us).  The students in Peru also got to describe some of their local cuisine, such as ceviche to our students, who named cheese steaks as their favorite. 

There were times when we couldn't hear each other well, and sometimes my students and I had trouble understanding his students' accents, but overall, it was a lot of fun!  And surprisingly easy.  Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, my students didn't have a lot of time to do research, but Gerardo's students were able to create presentations based on the research they did.  Sadly, my students were never able to see them because the site Gerardo put the presentations up on is blocked by my district.  As a side note, we had discussed the possibility of using VoiceThread to allow students to share their work and ideas, but that, too is blocked by my district.

They were, however, able to leave comments on my project wiki page for the students in Lima to read.

Unfortunately, it was the end of their school year (Peru is below the equator, so the seasons are opposite to ours), so we won't be able to plan another meeting for a while.  Hopefully, by then, I will have better equipment and we will have more time to plan.

(and I will make sure my designated photo-taker takes photos of the other students, too!)

We had also set up Twitter accounts for both of our schools (@Bluford_Elem and @SGC_Senior) in case we wanted to students to Tweet answers to each other.  While that did not pan out due to planning limitations and my students' unfamiliarity with the Twitter format, it is has opened up that possibility in the future.  I am also glad that I have a Twitter account for my school.  I hope to be able to incorporate it into our parent communication and perhaps further communications with other teachers and schools.

The Sad Reality

Sadly, within the network firewalls of the School District, many of the powerful social media tools available for connecting classrooms are not available to us due to poor understanding of their potential and unsubstantiated or illogical fears.  There is a whole site dedicated to connecting classrooms to authors using Skype.  The hundreds of thousands of students in classrooms in Philadelphia will miss out on this opportunity due to it being blocked. (Although I'm hoping to find an author willing to use iChat or Google Chat.)

What's in the Future?
Now that I know how easy it is to plan such an event and even how fairly painless it is to pull it off, I look forward to similar experiences in the future with my students.  I am talking with a Kindergarten teacher in my building about getting an author or another class connected with his. 

I hope to do more collaborative work within my school and hopefully with other schools. It is so important for my students to interact with people outside of their communities, as many of them rarely get a chance to do so (see my previous post on this). A friend of mine who is a lab teacher in Germantown (a section of Philadelphia) and are planning a video chat with our students.  There are more social media tools I am hoping to use soon.  I will begin using my Diigo teacher account with my 5th and 6th graders for the research project they have coming up in the spring. I have already tested it with one of my 6th graders who is working on a separate project, and she loved it.  Hopefully tools like GlogsterEDU and VoiceThread will soon be unblocked so I can start using them!

Feel free to share your experiences with connection across continents or ways you have used social media in your classroom!

Read On

More Lessons in Teamwork: My Turn!


As many of you are aware, this past weekend dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on the city of Philadelphia (23.4" was the final tally, I believe).  The city barely plowed any of the streets aside from the main arteries.  This left my tiny, dead end street blanketed and all of the cars on the block completely unmovable.

Fortunately, today was a snow day, so I had time to work on getting the car out.  Around 1:30pm, my friend and Twitter colleague, Mike Ritzius brought me a shovel to borrow.  I immediately started digging,  A few feet down the street my neighbor was shoveling her sidewalk. I started working on shoveling the street.  I was set on shoveling a path for my car, even if it took me all day.  I gazed down the block, with its piles and piles of snow and while the task looked daunting, I had no choice. I HAD to get my car out!

A few minutes later my neighbor came closer and asked, "So, what's your shoveling goal, here?"  I told her that I was just trying to clear enough to get my car down the street. She offered to help.

Within minutes, another neighbor came out with his shovel, saying "I just came to join the shoveling party."  I responded, "And what a party it is!"  The three of us got to work.  About half an hour later, another neighbor came out to clear off her car and a few minutes after that, two more neighbors came out.  While the one neighbor just lent us her shovel and some conversation, the other two started clearing toward the end of the block toward where we were.  Before we knew it, the street was clear enough for me to start pulling my car out.

As I neared the end of the block, feeling celebratory and proud, one of my neighbors signaled for me to open my window.  "You're tire's flat," she told me.  I got out to look. Sure enough, my tire was nearly flat.  I couldn't believe it.  We started unhooking my spare and searching for the jack.  As we were searching, another neighbor pulled a tube through his basement window toward my car. It was an air compressor for car tires!  He quickly filled my tire up and far as I know, it's fixed.

A few moments earlier, another neighbor began backing his car into his usual spot at the end of the block, right by where I had stopped my car to check out the flat. We explained what had happened, and he waited while my tire was filled.  Then, he pulled his car out of the way and let me take a spot on the adjoining street while he stopped traffic.  I returned the favor as he backed into in the original spot.

As I walked back toward my house, all I could think was, "wow, I live on the best block!" We've only lived here a little over 2 months.  When I returned back to the block, I kept digging out the street with the newest shift of neighbors who had been inspired by our handiwork and were now digging out the unshoveled parts of the block and digging out their cars.  "See what it takes to meet your neighbors?!" I joked.  I finished the end of the block with two new members of our shoveling crew.  At one point, one of the women on our block stuck her head out of her door with a bottle of white wine in her hand saying "thanks, guys, please take this!"  We stuck the bottle in the snow to keep it cold while shoveling.

At the end of the afternoon, I looked down the block, amazed at the hard work and teamwork that enabled us, as neighbors but complete strangers, to come together to accomplish a mutual goal.

Of course, I always apply all of my life experiences to teaching and my job.  My correlation was this:

My neighbors and I pulled together in a time of need to help each other out when there was no one else to help us.  We took charge and accomplished our goal while making new friends and getting to know each other better, building a closer community.

Right now, the teachers in my school are in need of help and support, and it's not coming from above.  Seems like we need to pick up our proverbial shovels and get down to the business of achieving our goals without waiting for help from the outside.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that it's not just the teachers in my school.  Teachers everywhere are struggling with the effects of high stakes testing, more demands without more time to fill them, the prospects of having their pay directly tied to how their students perform on state tests, and budget cuts creating shortages in materials, staff and basic needs.

If you find yourself in such a seemingly no-win situation, I implore you to pick up your shovel.  Chances are, there are others willing to help!

photo of woman shoveling courtesy of bighappyfunhouse.com
Read On

We Need Time for Teamwork


This year I have been given the opportunity to work with a group of 13 proficient/advanced 1st and 2nd graders for a Reading Enrichment period every day for 45 minutes.  At first, I grumbled and complained.  I had at least 3-4 'behavior problems,' no lesson plans and no idea what the students' reading levels were or what I was expected to teach.

I spent the first month experimenting with management techniques, procedures for meeting me in the IMC or at my lab (the students are not only in different grades, but in different classes).  I experimented in what kinds of activities to do. I researched their reading levels on SchoolNet, I looked up the weekly standards in the Planning and Scheduling Timeline and planned accordingly.  Slowly, as I realized through conversation with admins and coaches that no one was really monitoring what I was doing or seemed concerned with it (the rest of the school does a scripted Corrective Reading program during that time--I teach the kids who tested out of the program), I decided to take some freedoms.

My students wrote stories, which they illustrated and read for a podcast.  Now we are working on Storybird stories, many of which have been published.

With such wonderful work being produced and such enthusiasm and motivation, I still had to put out little fires as students argued or teased each other.

I decided, "Hey, no one really cares what I do with these students anyway...." so I decided to do some relationship and team building.

We had read A Chair For My Mother by Vera Williams and discussed how the community had helped the little girl and her mother after their apartment caught fire.  We wrote stories about people helping people. I figured it was time to do some helping ourselves.

Over the weekend I bought a 100 piece puzzle and put it together. I broke it up into 4 parts, labeling the pieces in each part with either a number 1, 2, 3 or 4.  I bagged up each group of numbered pieces in 4 separate bags.

In class the next day, I broke the students into groups by having them count off into 4 groups.  We reviewed best practices for working in groups (using kind words, being patient) and I reminded them that they would do their best work by working together as a team.  Each group worked on putting their pieces together in preparation for putting the whole puzzle together.  Three of the groups got right to work, without a hitch.  I was beaming.  The last group was struggling. One of the students didn't want to work with the students in his group.  He was standing, watching, saying, "We need some of those kids in our group, they're almost done!" I told him, "J__, your group is not keeping up because they need your help!  If you help them put the pieces together, you'll be done faster."  He, unfortunately, did not 'get it,' and I had to get down on the floor and help his group.

By the end of the period, we were still not finished, so I had to carefully pack the puzzle up for the next day. The students kept asking, "Are we working on our puzzle tomorrow?"  The experience of working with their peers had been such a positive experience, they couldn't wait to do it again.

The next day, each group took turns placing pieces in the puzzle to finish it.  At the end, the students cheered and we all 'high-fived.' Sadly, the student who had not participated the puzzle activity the day before was absent, so he missed our success.  I can't wait to show him the completed puzzle.

I won't know until tomorrow and the next day whether this activity has helped pull us together as a group or whether it will make any difference in how my students treat each other.

With all of the scripted program and testing pressure, there is little time in their 'regular' classrooms for this kind of activity.  I hope it makes a difference!

I guess that will be another post.....

Puzzle photo:
Read On

Lessons Learned from Great Educators: Philly Teacher Edition


 Just recently, I received a tweet from my friend Shelly Terrell who 'tagged' me in her post about educators who have influenced her as a teacher, challenging me to reflect on my own teachers.

I have named this post after hers: Lessons Learned from Great Educator.  

My grandmother

The first teacher that I had was my grandmother.  She ran a Montessori school in the suburbs of New York City where I grew up.  My Montessori beginnings definitely helped mold me as a learner.  I learned through exploration and social interaction.  Those lessons continued as I spent my summers with her, my grandfather and two cousins on Nantucket Island as a child.  We spent our afternoons exploring the beaches, digging hot tubs in the sand and reading a collection of photo-laden encyclopedias.


The next teacher I remember was my Kindergarten teacher, Betty Raden (I don't know if I spelled her name correctly, it was a while ago.).  We wrote in our journals every day, we spent a week in a homemade cardboard town with everyone working a different job every day.  I think I remember working in the post office, delivering letters that my classmates had written.  My parents and I stopped by an appliance store to get some big boxes to help build the city.

We also raised Monarch butterflies in the spring, watching our eggs hatch and our caterpillars change into butterflies, drawing and writing about the changes.  When they hatched, we had a butterfly room, which was in the corner of the classroom.  We could walk inside and feed the butterflies.  Then, they were tagged and set free to migrate to the South.

Mrs. Wittenberg
Most students didn't like Mrs. Wittenberg. She made you WORK.  I had her for 8th grade Global Studies and 9th grade English.  She lectured us on the culture, traditions, history and politics of every corner of the world and taught us how to build a well-organized essay that addressed all aspects of the topic at hand.  In English class, she gave us a choice of how to show what we had learned (such as a movie poster).  She handed out a rubric at the beginning of the assignment, then had us fill it out to hand in with our work.  She would also fill one out so we could see how accurately we had graded ourselves.

My biggest lesson that I learned from her, however, is one that I describe to my students every year.  We were assigned to write a research paper about any topic we wanted.  I chose acid rain.  I spent weeks doing the research and writing the essay.  I thought it was pretty great.  When I got my essay back, it said "See Me" in big red letters.

Turns out, I had plagiarized nearly all of my essay.  She made me stay after school to sit with her and rewrite half of the essay.  I was able to resubmit it and though I don't remember the grade (maybe it was a B+?) it was the best lesson I've ever had in restating facts in my own words.  She was patient with me and took the time to make the best of a 'teachable moment' when another teacher might have failed me without such dedication to her student.

The most influential part of my high school experience was my senior year in the Walkabout program.  The program was based on a rite of passage for young Aborigines.  In my junior year I applied for the program, which was designed for high school seniors who were either in risk of failing or looking for something more out of high school,  and was accepted.  I had been taking mostly AP and advanced courses, was yearbook editor and a member of a few clubs, and was pretty much bored with what high school had to offer.

In September, myself and about 25 other students from around Westchester County, NY found ourselves in a building on the BOCES campus in Yorktown with no idea what was in store for us.  Our year began with a week-long backpacking trip in the Catskills--carrying our food, tents and water with us--and progressed to a 4-week Community Service project.  We reported to our C.S. location 4 days a week for a full day, reporting to school only on Mondays for classes and reflection.  Next, came the 6-week Internship and extensive training in resume creation, interviewing skills and a lot of phone calls ending in rejection.  I was able to land 2 internships, splitting my 4 days 'in the field' between Vibe magazine and YM magazine.  On Monday, I went to class and reflected on my experiences during the week.  I did this all before my 18th birthday.

Our year concluded with another week-long backpacking trip, this time in the Adirondacks, and a graduation unlike anything I'd ever been to.  The graduations were spanned over 2 nights, with every student standing in front of their friends and family talking about their year, their accomplishments, their fears and their dreams.

I don't even remember my 'real' high school graduation---except that I wore a pink skirt that I made myself and probably sneakers. I was, at that point, 'beyond high school.'  I don't understand why this kind of program isn't available to all seniors.  It is the ultimate preparation for adult life.

My Education, My Teaching Style
It is no secret to me that my own past education experiences have influenced my teaching style.  In grades K-3 I did nothing but project based learning.  I completed many hands-on projects and I was given freedom in what I chose to study.  I find that much of my teaching reflects this philosophy.  I tend to lean toward projects that span a few weeks to a month, and I always try to give my students some kind of choice in completing the assignment.

I use rubrics extensively and make them available to my students when we start the project and throughout the project.  I also take the time to teach my students about copyright and plagiarism, and I try not to miss 'teachable moments' when I see a misconception or a student struggling with an assignment.

I am aware that my experience is exceptional and that I have been blessed with a handful of wonderful teachers and varied, alternative learning experiences.  I know how much this kind of education meant to me and how it helped me become the adult I am today. This is why it saddens me to no end to watch my students stuck in classrooms with scripted, direct instruction lessons, curriculum timelines that require teachers to move on, and subjects taught in isolation with no real world application or student choice.

I see students' curiosity stifled, their motivation hindered and their love of learning crushed at a young age.  Learning was fun and relevant for me as a child.  When you take the blocks and social play out of Kindergarten, and you teach standardized test skills to 1st graders, you've already begun the process of taking away a child's natural curiosity and need for exploration.

The Challenge

So I'm tagging some fellow bloggers to reflect on teachers they've had that have influenced their teaching and personal lives.  Andrew Forgrave, Chad Sansing, Deven Black, Beth Still, and Kelly Hines and Ryan Wassink I have tagged you in this post, but please do not feel pressured.  I respect your blogs and your work as educators, and wanted to extend this challenge to you.

Please link back to Shelly's original post (see above) in your post, as it is she who started the challenge!

Please leave a link to your post in the comments so that we can read them!

aborigine photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue_Mountains_Aboriginees.jpg
Monarch photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bestrated1/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Read On

2009 Edublog Awards


I am SO honored and thrilled to have been nominated for an Edublog Award.

When I first started this blog almost exactly a year ago, I really had no idea where it would go and I had no plan, really.

After reading more blogs and building my PLN, my blog has grown as I have grown professionally.

It is a reflection of what the inspirational and supportive educators I have met over the last year have taught me.

Please stop by the Edublog Awards site to vote. It is a list that everyone should keep close at hand.  

You can vote for me here: Best Teacher Blog

Image credit:
Read On

Storybird: Inspiring Young Writers


While I have known about Storybird for months now from Twitter, I finally was able to put it in the hands of my students.  And boy, did they run with it!

Storybird is a Web 2.0 tool that allows anyone to create an online storybook. 

First, you choose the artwork by choosing an artist.  There is a wide variety of styles and mediums as well as art that is both kid and adult friendly.

Next, you begin dragging pictures of your choice to the 'paper,' adding words and a cover.  As of now I don't see any page limit.  Some of my students already have 10 pages in their stories.

Storybird automatically saves your work every few minutes, even if you are not logged in.  In order to publish or come back to your story later, you need to create an account, but it is pretty simple and does not ask for a lot of information.

Storybird has been transformative for my students' writing.  We started writing stories on paper about a month or so ago, with the rough draft, editing and rewrite.  Their stories were well structured, but they had trouble starting off with an idea.  They also groaned every time they had to rewrite the same story with the editing changes.  They groaned even louder when I asked them to draw pictures.

Now, they can easily go back and edit their stories or add pages, I can go through and edit on the spot with them, and their inspiration comes from the wonderful artwork.  They can't wait to log in and get back to their stories.

As a lab teacher who sees around 500 students a week, I have to make things simple, so I created an account for each class.  Each class logs in with a universal account and then they put their name on their story cover to identify themselves as the author.  So far it has worked like a charm, and I have not had any problems with students working on stories other than their own.

Also, since the students know that they will get to read everyone's stories once they are published (I have been embedding them on our wiki as they are completed), they are also pretty good about 'peeking.'

What I also love about Storybird is the way it forces students to tie their words to their pictures.  It also forces them to use their imaginations to tie the images together to create a story.  In addition, the idea of writing for an authentic audience motivates them to take their time with their stories and it gives them a real reason write, aside from pleasing the teacher.  When I created podcast of some stories they wrote earlier in the month, they would sit and listen to/watch the stories over and over, exclaiming "I'm reading your story right now!" to each other.

As an avid writer and former art student, I am a firm believer in students learning how to illustrate their work.  However, I watched so many of my students get frustrated and struggle with illustrations that it took away from the writing process.

Today my 2nd graders published their first Storybird stories:

Friends by,ashley by Enrichment on Storybird

a sad dog by , tamir by Enrichment on Storybird

I look forward to using this tool with my 3rd graders to produce more in depth and involved stories.
Read On

My Lesson in "Us vs. Them"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your experiences and thoughts?

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

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My New Favorite Unconference: BarCamp Philly!


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

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

Teaching as a Second Career

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

Things That Suck

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

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

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

Lunch Time

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

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

The Social Media Survival Guide for Schools

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

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

Asynchronous Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Email: mritzius@ccts.net or you can follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mritzius
Email: nborota@ccts.net or you can follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/nborota

Closing Thoughts 

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

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

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


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

It turns out I might be in for a treat!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diigo public bookmarks tagged with 'itouch'

plan image courtesy of juhansonin on Flickr

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Save Trees: Don't print me!