Educon 2.2: Day One


After a long day of meeting Twitter friends for the first time, touring the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) and venturing around Philly, I got home and wasn't sure what to do.  I decided to tweet out my dilemma, and of course, my PLN came through to help me make my decision:

My PLN has spoken, so here I am in bed trying to pull together my thoughts and reflections about the day.  (Deven, I will probably tell you tomorrow that you made the right decision!)

I will break down my day into sections so it is easy for me to recap and reflect.

Breakfast at the Windsor
What can I say, breakfast was a little overwhelming!  When I walked up the stairs, I immediately saw my friends Ann Leaness, Andrew Forgrave and Deven Black and I quickly began to meet more friends, like Hadley Ferguson, Kim Sivick, Meeno Rami, and Yoon Soo Lim many of whom I had never met in 'real life.'  I tried to 'make the rounds' to different tables to meet people, and also found Beth Still, Ryan Wassink, Angela Cunningham and Jason Schrage and Nelly Cardinale at another table.  Breakfast conversation was lively (fueled by too much coffee on an empty stomach) and though our food took forever due to it being our waitress' first day.  We were happy to sit and talk. (For future reference, whenever I say 'we,' it means whomever I ended up walking with. This changed throughout the day and is not worth updating every time I use the word 'we.')

The Science Leadership Academy Experience
We had planned to be at SLA by 10:00am, but ended up getting there a little later.  When I got there, I was excited to see my friend Holly Shaw, a fellow Philly computer teacher, in the cafeteria, and I received a phone call from another Philly lab teacher, Sherri Freedman soon after saying she was on her way. We checked in at the desk and picked up our name tags.

We took the elevator up to the library, which will serve as the "Blogger's Cafe" for the conference, and then moved out into the hallway and began peering into classrooms. We decided to tag along with a student-run tour and ended up in a Science lab that was so engaging I wanted to stay and be a student (disclaimer---I used to teach Science and am a total nerd about inquiry-based learning). To satisfy my craving, I spoke to some students who explained that they were looking for protozoa with their microscopes (which had cameras that were attached to their laptops) and that they were taking photos of them to add to a portfolio they have of all of the things they have observed so far this year.  A couple of the student pairs had a huge amount of little protozoa swimming around. I was mesmerized.

We then disengaged from the tour and headed to the 5th floor to see Diana Laufenberg's History class.  I had met Diana at our union meeting a few weeks back and have been tweeting back and forth with her over the past few months.  I was excited to see her classroom in action.  

The students were working on a National History Day project. I spoke with a student who explained that the theme of the project this year was innovation, so she chose the history of paper, focusing on the ancient Egyptians.  She explained that the students had to write a paper and then they could show what they had learned through a project such as a website, a video or a performance.  She had chosen website, as I remember.

What was great about the class was the climate. Many students had iPods and were listening to them, and many were standing up or walking around, but it was apparent that work was being done and that they were focused and engaged. Another great project we learned about from a student was when they were asked to rewrite history as if a certain event, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King never occurred.  Diana had a student teacher in her room, so we were able to grab her for some Q&A, which was great.

We learned that the students do not attend a full day of classes on Wednesdays.  Instead, from noon until the end of the regular school day, they work on some kind of individualized project.  Some do internships, some do community service work, some take mini classes at SLA.  Projects are based around student interest, and each student has an advisor to guide them along the way.  The students 'sign' in to their assigned location through an online system to assure that they are where they are supposed to be.  

This model really struck home with me since I went through a similar experience in high school and am 100% sure that I would not be the person I am today had I not had this experience. 

Ann and I had really wanted to check out  Zachary Chase's English class but he did not have a class at the time.  One of his student's blog posts became viral on Twitter as an example of the possibilities of student blogging as well as the sheer maturity and intelligence of the post itself. Of course I'm kicking myself now that I didn't bookmark the post in my Diigo library. If anyone has it, please leave the link in the comments!

Instead, we headed toward the Multi Touch lab to see the famous screen.  On it was projected a web of the Animal Kingdom that could be manipulated in a similar fashion as an iPod touch or iPhone (on a much larger scale).  It also appeared that by clicking on one species, it could create a connection through the kindgom based on a particular trait.  I would love to see how this board is used with students as the room it was in was bare aside from the huge screen in the corner.

We ended up stopping in the library quickly to meet Paula White and Becky Fisher for brief moment.  Once again, it was great to finally meet such talented educators face to face!

The Constitution Center 
A group of us decided to brave the cold and check out the Constitution Center. I had been there before with my parents, but decided it would be worth it--it was free, after all!  We took the trolley and the Market-Frankford Line to get there, which is always fun.  While the museum itself was not too exciting (I didn't remember it being that engaging), the show "Freedom Rising" always makes me leave feeling very patriotic.  Deven and I discussed how amazing it was that the Founding Fathers had such vision and selflessness to create such a revolutionary document as our Constitution.  On a side note, I had to memorize the Preamble in 5th grade and recite it as one of my grades and I still remember it to this day!

A small group of us decided to trek it to Monk's Cafe for some early pre-keynote dinner.  We met up with Andy Cinek there, a fellow Philadelphia teacher and his friend, who I only know as 'Joe.' Andy, help me out here so I can at least give his full name!  We also had a serendipitous meeting of Ben Wilkoff, Michael Wacker and Rick Tanksi.   I enjoyed hearing about the PodCamp Ben helped plan out in the Denver area.  I'm hoping to get to his session.  Sorry no photos of this meetup.

The Panel Discussion 
When I got to the Franklin Institute for the opening panel discussion I was happy to find myself sitting next to Sean Nash (who I had ashamedly met earlier and not recognized through a case of mistaken identity). Another friend, Mike Ritzius arrived as well, and crazy enough, found me because his sister, who was watching online saw me and told him where I was standing.  I was standing with two School District of Philadelphia colleagues, Tracey McGrath and Mark Perlman, who I was also happy to see. 

I will most likely do an additional post about the panel discussion, so I will keep this recap brief.  It's also almost 12:30am, so briefness is key.  The 5 panelists were very diverse in their backgrounds, so their takes on the question "What is smart?" were often very different.  Honestly, I was not blown away by the discussion, though I was highly impressed with many of the comments and reflections by Dr. Glaude.  (honest note here: I left my paper with all of the panelists' names on it downstairs and I am too lazy to go get it, so I have not listed their names) Some of the comments I remember were: "I have an erotic relationship with Dewey" and "Brilliance can be nurtured and found in unexpected places." Overall, he seemed like the one who was most excited to be there. He appeared to be enjoying the discussion for discussion's sake, as most intellectuals do.  I liked that.

The conversation itself fluctuated from biological smart to smartness as a social construct.  The president of Moore College of Art spoke about how people can be smart in a particular area, but not in another.  There was also a discussion of whether people thought about smartness before the written word and what it may have meant then.

There was a great backchannel discussion going on as well.

After the panel discussion, we headed to the Planetarium for some light refreshments. I ran into many people I had crossed paths with during the day, and was introduced to Melissa Techman for the first time.  We had a conversation about 'doing it anyway' when you are told not to do something.  I love that.

OK, it's WAAAYY too late and I have a long day tomorrow.  I'm getting really excited!

To follow all of the tweets from Educon, you can check out this Twapper Keeper.
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More PLN Power


My new friend Kyle Pace send me a message on Twitter on Wednesday asking me about my Wallwisher activities I had been doing with my students.  I sent him a few links, and he messaged me back saying he had left a message on our Haiti wall with a resource.

When my 5th grade class came in yesterday, my students were so excited.  He had shared an earthquake simulator, that they LOVED.

How cool that my students got to learn something new from a teacher they had never met before!  I am constantly amazed at how powerful social media can be for learning at all ages. 

Thanks, Kyle!
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My Biggest Fears Realized


If you read my earlier post about Race to the Top, you know that I have been dreading the news that my school will be labeled as a Renaissance School.

Well, my biggest fear has been realized.

In our boxes today was parent letter explaining that my school is on the list of eligible schools for Renaissance Schools.

So what does this mean? More limbo. The 'official' list doesn't come out until March.  That means I won't know my fate for another month.

Anyone looking for a hardworking lab teacher?  I'm available.
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Wallwisher: Making Student Voices Heard


It's been over a week since the devastating earthquake in Haiti.  A few days after the quake, my friend Karen McMillan sent me an invite to her Diigo group, Kids4Haiti.  While I, unfortunately, have not been good enough to add any sites to the list, Karen has been working hard to update the list with sites that show photos and list ways to help out along with a variety of other topics.

We had an early dismissal day today since we had professional development in the afternoon. On these days, I find out at 8am who is on my schedule for the day. Not enough time to pull together a lesson. So I took some inspiration from my other friend, Ann Leaness and her Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Wallwisher and mixed it with the resources from Karen's group.

First, I saw that I had a 5th grade class on my schedule, so I went to their page on our Student Work Wiki and added an assignment. I gave them a link to the Diigo group so they could look through the links and resources.  Then, I provided a link to a Wallwisher I had created for them to post their thoughts and reflections on.

Before starting, we briefly discussed what they knew about the earthquake (surprisingly little) to give them some background.  One of my students said, "I don't care about them Africans!" This student is prone to outbursts to get attention, so I ignored the comment and kept going.  After 10 minutes of scrolling through pictures of the damage, asking me questions about the pictures and watching newscasts, she left a caring and thoughtful comment on the Wall.  Many other students did as well.  I wasn't sure exactly how they would react or what they would say. I didn't give them any rules or guidelines.

Here are their reflections:
(you can also view them here)

The students also loved reading what each other had to say, commenting on their classmates' responses. Everyone in the class had their voice heard, which rarely happens in such a short period of time. It also gave me a chance to get to know my students better and it gave them a real audience for their reflections.

If you haven't tried Wallwisher, I highly suggest giving it a try.  This is the second class I have used it with, and both have proved to be meaningful experiences. What's even better, wall posts can be moderated. My previous Wallwisher required a lot of moderation, but the posts on this one were so honest and heartfelt, not one needed to be censored.
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Taxation without Representation or "Don't pee on my leg and call it rain."


Those of you who work in unionized districts are probably dealing with a variety of looming changes and 'reforms' due to Arnie Duncan and President Obama's new Race to the Top Program.  In case you've been in a cave for the last month, the RTTT Program (so quaintly referred to on Twitter as "Race to the Toilet" by a colleague of mine) has created a mad dash for federal cash among the 41 states who successfully completed the application by the January 19th deadline.  With that dash has come a need for unions and districts to come to the table to discuss the language of the program's requirements to bring the federal money into the state.

My Union (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers) went to the table this month and sent out an email to its members explaining how this new program application would affect contract negotiations.  Did I mention that we had been working under an extended contract for over 2 years?  The final extension to January 15th gave the Union and the District enough time to sign the required paperwork in time for the deadline.  I don't think there was ever a question of whether the Union would sign the paperwork. With 2 years of negotiations, we had less and less ground to stand on. A sinking economy, a national health care plan in hot debate, and a new educational reform program worth millions of dollars to the winning bidders.

To make matters worse, in 2001 the State of Pennsylvania used the power of Act 46, which allows the State to take over Philadelphia schools and to complete a State takeover of the entire District. The results: an appointed School Reform Commission (SRC) instead of a School Board, the elimination of teachers' right to strike, and the limitation of the Union to negotiate basic things like staffing patterns and assignments, pupil assessment and teacher prep time.  So if we didn't come to an agreement, the SRC would make one for us. It was a no-brainer. If the Union signed the RTTT paperwork, thereby agreeing to put the needed verbiage in the contract to support the State's needs for the program application, then we would be able to maintain certain parts of the contract we wanted.

We were lucky enough to maintain 100% employer-paid benefits, receive both step (annual) raises and two bonuses over the course of the 3 year contract and avoid an extended school year and day.  That I cannot complain about. Unfortunately, in order to keep these things in the contract, there was the addition of two articles that will have a huge impact on myself and many other teachers in the district.

The first: "Value Added Compensation." In short, in 25% of schools defined as "High-Needs" (probably about 4 schools total) will receive across the board, whole-school bonuses for showing marked improvement in student achievement and 10% of schools defined as "non-High-Needs" will also receive the bonus. I am not sure how that translates into a number, but it's not many.  The best part of the language?  "....based on availability of funds."  It's obvious that the language was placed in the contract to satisfy the RTTT application requirements. According to the Executive Summary, States would have to show that they are:

(you can find the executive summary here)

The second: "Renaissance Schools."  These are schools destined for complete restructuring.  According to the new contract, should a school be designated a Renaissance School (RS), 100% of its staff will be force transferred (forced to choose a different school) or be given the option to re-apply through site-selection to work at the newly formed school.  However, only 50% of the original staff may be re-hired.  RS's are schools that have been in Corrective Action II for 6 or more years (along with other criteria).  These schools will be closed and re-opened under new management.  Organizations began applying to take over schools on January 20th. Technically, the list of RS was supposed to come out too, but in my opinion they held out until the new contract was ratified.  Should you decide to work in a RS, you will be required to work an extra hour every day, 2 Saturdays a month and up to 22 days in July (paid). Not for the weak of heart and VERY similar to the KIPP Charter School model that Duncan has lauded as a solution to closing the achievement gap for low-income, minority students (we have 2 in Philadelphia).  Side note: my school will most likely be designated as one of these schools.
Here is the wording in the Executive Summary to support the RS article in the contract:

So what's the deal with the 'pee on my leg' stuff, you ask?

I walked up to the contract ratification meeting at the Temple Liacourus Center to meet up with my friend Ann Leaness, and I already had a feeling of "it's a done deal."  As we sat, watching people file in, all I could think was how pitiful a turnout we had. It was the night before high school grades were due.  I had seen more people show up to ratify our contract extension earlier in the school year.  As some of my fellow staff members arrived and sat in the seats I had saved for them, I fingered my paper ballot, thankful for my tiny chance of being heard.  I had experienced many "aye/nay" votes in the past and was glad this vote would be (at least a little more) fair.

Union President Jerry Jordan took the podium, explaining, along with bulleted PowerPoint slides, the changes and additions to the contract.  We had all received an email around noon describing these changes in detail, and they were available in print form at the meeting.  Many of my fellow staff members had not read the changes yet. (I had read it online and took notes--I have issues.)  After reviewing the changes, as with all Union meetings, they opened up the floor to the 6 mics available for asking questions and commenting.  Each mic had a long line of people behind it. Some thanked Jerry and the negotiating team, some voiced concerns about Renaissance Schools and the scripted programs that they were being forced to teach that insulted them and stifled their creativity as professionals. From the responses that Jerry gave it was obvious that this thing was going to pass whether we wanted it to or not.

At least I had my ballot.

There was a motion to close the discussion, which passed.  Suddenly, Jerry says, "All in favor of ratifying the contract say 'aye.' Against, say 'nay.'"  Then, "The aye's have it, the contract passes."

I was shocked. Disgusted. Annoyed. Sad. Dumbfounded. Someone yelled out "This is bullsh*t!" I kind of agreed. I mean, what the hell?  Why did we have ballots?  I shook my head and walked toward the exit. As I passed the ballot box, I figured, "what the hay" and cast my ballot (I voted against it.)  I saw people tossing out their ballots or putting them empty into the boxes. "What's the point," they were saying, "It's already been passed."  I couldn't believe that around 2,000 attendees made a verbal vote to represent 16,000 teachers or that we had to vote on something that we had only had a few minutes (or hours if we were lucky) to read.

The next morning I found out that the ballots HAD been counted.  The count had been 1,831 to 885 according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But did we ever really have a choice? How many people threw away their ballots or didn't vote? What about the 14,000 people who didn't attend or couldn't attend because they were busy putting in grades?  I pay Union dues, but what am I really getting out of it?  Hence the title of this post.

This is a really scary time to be an educator. Perhaps, even, to be a student. Imagine finding out that all of the teachers in your school have been let go, that the school you've been attending for the last 4 or 5 years will no longer exist as it has.  This could be scarier than NCLB ever was.

Grab your umbrellas everyone!

Arne Duncan photo courtesy of Dept. of Education
Baby crying photo courtesy of / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Meeting Tomorrow's Free LCD Projector Contest


I don't usually do this kind of thing, but I received an email from a community outreach spokesperson from Meeting Tomorrow, a company that sells audio/visual equipment, telling me about a contest they are doing.

Meeting Tomorrow will be giving away 10 LCD projectors to 10 schools based on votes. You can nominate and vote for your school here:

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How Google Might Save My School


Today, one of my 2nd graders clicked on an ad at the bottom of my PortaPortal page and discovered a PBS Frontline video called "How Google Saved a School." He watched the whole thing through, commenting at the end, "That was decent!"  I immediately found the video (using my PortaPortal page ad), Diigo bookmarked it and sent it out on Twitter.

Now, I could write a whole post about the unbelievable things going on in that school, but my mind turned to how Google might save MY school.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that my school is, well, how should I put it. Failing.  Our school culture leaves much to be desired, with students running through the halls, fights in the cafeteria and, unfortunately, much of the administration's attention being focused on the 'do-badders' rather than the 'do-gooders.'

We have been, since September, talking about starting an incentive program with 'Bluford Bucks' that students could earn for exhibiting positive behaviors at school.  They could then 'buy' prizes with the Bluford Bucks they had earned.  We talked, and speculated and talked.  Finally, in November, we received a sheet of 3 Bluford Bucks to photocopy with a short explanation of the concept in our boxes.  At the bottom of the explanation was a description of 2 ideas that our Climate Manager had in mind with a request for more ideas.  All I could think was "This is never going to work like this."  Not because it wasn't a good idea or wasn't trying to be successful. It was just impossible that, by putting a sheet of Bluford Bucks in teachers' boxes and saying, "Here's this program, we're not really sure how it's going to work, but let's do it!" that any program would work.

But I really want it to work.

We NEED an incentive program.  We need one with teacher buy-in. We need one that is well-thought out, well-planned and well-orchestrated.  That is something that one person cannot do alone.

In steps Google.

I decided, "Hey it's my school, and if I want this to work, I've got to do something about it."  I spread the word that I was starting a Bluford Bucks Committee and I set up our first meeting to be on a day when we had report conferences at night so I knew people would be in the building.

15 teachers showed up.  I was giddy.

The night before I had put together a Google Group for the committee, hoping that the committee would buy into it.  Anyone who works in a large school knows how hard it is to find time for people to meet, especially across disciplines and grade levels.  I figured a Google Group would solve that problem by allowing people to be part of the planning without having to find a common meeting time.

I collected email addresses at the meeting and made everyone a member.

At first, it was just me posting up discussions and sharing information.  A few people responded, and I knew that people were reading the posts because they would talk to me about them in school.  Then we went on Winter Break.

The group was quiet for a week over break.  This week, it has blossomed and bloomed.  People are responding to posts, responding to each other, taking on responsibilities and sharing them.

Tomorrow, thanks to the power of Google, we have a mobile school store on a cart decorated by one of our committee members, a pile of donated school supplies for the store, newly designed Bluford Bucks (in Photoshop by one of our committee members), volunteers ready to bring the cart around to show the students and explain the program, a script for the pitch and criteria for getting "Bluford Bucks," administration support, and a team of teachers dedicated to making this program work.

Google might save my school.

I sent a message out to our committee members, quoting Angela Maiers: "Together we are smarter." Were it not for the way that Google Groups allows members to share resources and communicate asynchronously (with a very user-friendly interface), none of this would have been accomplished.

It has been an amazing experience watching my colleagues step up and take the reigns.  It's as if they've been itching for the opportunity.  What's even more amazing is that all of this has been accomplished without the intervention (aside from offers of monetary support) from any administrators (they were made members of the group, so they've been able to follow what's been going on).

Even if everything doesn't pan out exactly how we planned it at first, the way we pulled together as a staff will have lasting effects in how we work together as a staff.

You can view our group here:

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My Video for ISTE's Outstanding Educator Award


I am in the process of pulling together my applications materials for ISTE's Outstanding Young Educator Award.

This is the video I put together to address this question: "What role do you believe technology plays in making a positive difference in teaching and learning?"

Thanks for your feedback everyone, I changed the video based on some of your suggestions. I think it's done!
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Save Trees: Don't print me!