Philly Teacher has a new home!


After many happy years on Blogger, Philly Teacher has moved to its own domain!

Come check out the action at:

This site will stay up, though the posts have all migrated to the new domain.
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My Email to Education Nation


I'm not sure how many of you get emails from NBC's Education Nation, but I get them fairly frequently and was even invited to attend the Teacher Town Hall in Philadelphia (I didn't--instead I attended a locally planned and organized event that connected me with some great people here in Philadelphia).

Right now, NBC's schtick is an essay writing contest for a teacher to win a seat at the Teacher Town Hall in NYC. I am beginning to get tired of the whole thing, so I sent an email in return. Here it is:

Thanks, Kevin.

Just curious--what is the lure of sitting in the Teacher Town Hall? Why a contest for a seat sitting and watching something I can watch from home? Yes, I know there is a glimmer of a chance that I could get up to the mic and ask a question, but to what avail?

I understand what NBC is doing, and I'm glad they're getting involved, but after the horrendous conference call I was invited to participate in--I hung up since I a) had no idea how many people were on the call and  b) found the format not very conducive to conversation, kind of like a bunch of blind people in a dark room--I'm wondering, "what's the point?"

You'd be better to do an essay for a teacher to be ON THE PANEL.

Even WORSE is that when you do a search on NBC for the SOS March you get NOTHING except a video of Matt Damon. There is no mention of it on the Education Nation website either.

Where was Education Nation then?  That was THE biggest possible Teacher Town Hall this country has ever seen and NBC missed it.

I know you may just be a marketing guy, but these are serious questions and issues. It's great and all to have some stuff for ratings and PR, but if you're not actually tackling the big issues and covering everything, what's the point?

I hope you are not offended by my honesty, but I just had to express what I've been feeling every time one of the Education Nation emails comes through my inbox.

Thank you,

Mary Beth

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Networking vs Building Relationships


image from Melody on Flickr
Amazingly, I did not write a single ISTE reflection piece this year. It's always a little overwhelming trying to digest everything, but there are a few things that have stuck with me even into the beginning of August. Now that I'm on a bus headed to the #140edu conference , it seems fitting that I'm thinking about some of the conversations I had about networking.

Over the course of the 3 days I found myself in discussions about networking, relationships and learning on more than one occasion. Most discussions concluded with the idea that while networking is invaluable, building relationships is really what matters and is really what we're about.

My involvement in social media over the last three years has taught me the priceless skills of making connections and networking (skills, I would argue, that teachers are deprived of through the nature of current programs within schools of education). I'm an outgoing person, but 4 years ago I would not have had business cards, approached people I'd never met or felt connected to larger conversations enough to pipe up in a conversation while able to bring enough to the table to join in and then sit back and learn.

I've been telling people how much I've learned about networking and I've been following many conversations centered around the networked teacher. In fact, I have been working with a colleague of mine to help her become one.  I always tell people that I'm only as smart as the people I know. I know a lot of people. 

But is "networking" really what is helping us learn? Is it really what we should strive for?

David Jakes has a great blog entitled The Strength of Weak Ties. I've always loved that name. While searching for the exact link for this post I stumbled across Mark Granovetter's highly influential sociology paper of the same name. (I'm kind of ashamed I'd never heard of it before!) As networked teachers we are connected loosely through social media, conferences and in a more local sense, our Intermediate Units, Regions, Districts, Unions, etc...  These connections make us better teachers, they facilitate learning, but when I talk to members of my 'weak ties' network (mostly Twitter) what we really seek are relationships, stronger ties that enable ongoing support and deeper learning opportunities.

When I think of networking in the traditional sense, I think of an exchange, an "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" attitude. Relationships, however, involve a give-and-take with one side sometimes giving more than the other. Relationships involve a giving of self and ideas rather than a give-in-order-to-receive mentality.

Though I began honing my networking skills through the lens of social media, I have begun to build a network here in Philadelphia as well through the work I do for the South Philly Food Co-op and the annual edcamp Philly unconference. Some of the connections I have made are 'weak ties.' They are limited to the skin-deep needs each party has for his or her project. However, many of those ties have bloomed into relationships that go beyond our original purpose. It has made Philadelphia ridiculously small for me over the past year or so.
Similarly, many of the weak ties that I have built through social media still remain weak. Even so, I still value them. These are the people with whom I network because we share similar jobs, viewpoints or interests. However, the more powerful, deeper connections that have blossomed from such weak ties into friendships and professional relationships have and continue to push me as a teacher and helped me discover my own passions and beliefs.

While it's important to maintain those weak ties, let's look beyond networking and begin to build relationships that matter.
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The Reform Symposium 2011


The countdown has begun for this year's free, 3-day online conference, The Reform Symposium!  In its third year, this awesome event runs nearly 24 hours a day for 3 days, with keynotes from highly respected educators and presentations from all over the world. Whether you're in Texas or Taiwan, there are presentations happening for your time zone.

Thanks to the organizers, Shelly Terrell, Christopher Rogers, Kelly Tenkely, Lisa Dabbs, Melissa Tran, Mark Barnes, Cecilia Lemos, Clive Elsmore, and Jerry Blumengarten! You can read more about them here. 

A big thanks goes to Steve Hargadon as well for setting us up with the Elluminate rooms!

You can tune into the sessions, which will be held using Elluminate, by checking out the schedule.  To see what's happening in your time zone, use the tabs on the bottom of the spreadsheet. Links to each room will be posted on the first day of the conference.

You can also follow the hashtags #rscon3 or  #rscon11 (people seem to be using both).

To learn more about the presenters, you can check this out.

We are also in need of Elluminate moderators. You can sign up to help here:

I will be presenting on Friday, July 29th at 5:00pm EST. I will be discussing video games and what we can learn from them to better plan instruction and design learning experiences.

Come check it out! It's always a good time!

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Do You Teach Touch Typing Using Home Row?


My recent post on whether or not we should be teaching keyboarding skills invoked a lively conversation. As a follow up, here is a survey to gather some data on who is teaching it and who is not and why or why not. The results will be published in an upcoming Technology Review article by Anne Trubek.

This form is now closed. Thanks for everyone who responded!

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Adventures with Robots


Next week I begin teaching LEGO Robotics for the first time. I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a kit for the weekend to play around with.

Here is short video I quickly pulled together (I apologize for the quality!) of my day. I spent about 45 minutes building the first robot, but spent most of my time struggling with the install of Mindstorms on OS X.

Here's how I spent my day!

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A Tribute to My Father


This post is way overdue, but it's been on my mind for a while. I wrote a post for my mother a month or so ago and it's only fair that I express my gratitude for my father as well.

I have been blessed with two wonderful parents, and each have played a large role in who I am today.

I am thankful for having a father who always believes in me, who supports me and always wants to the best for me. A father who worked hard to give me as many opportunities as possible and from whom I probably inherited my insane work ethic.

I enjoy discussing politics and history with my father. (Though the chances that we'll agree are slim.) He is a highly intelligent person with a great sense of humor.

Thank you, Dad, for your unending support and for helping make me who I am today.
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Freedom to Learn: Trust me *Please*


This past year I had the opportunity to write my own tech curriculum. I was starting at a new school with a new set of students and two labs I'd never taught in before. It was a shot in the dark.

I used the ISTE NETS framework to build the curriculum, mapping out a schedule of when I would teach what and which skills were at what level for each grade, but I had no idea where my students were on that map.

Now that a year has passed, I am scrapping nearly the entire thing and rebuilding it based on what I now know about my students, what I have learned over the course of the school year about teaching and learning as well as what I have observed as successful and what has failed in how I teach and design lessons and units.

My curriculum next year will be twice as good as this year's, I'm certain.

So I struggle with the idea of canned curricula, books and series put out by publishing companies and labeled as 'curriculum.'

No wonder many teachers feel like robots, delivering what the teacher's guide says is the objective for the day. I'm not even sure I know any teachers in Philadelphia who have played a part in writing the curriculum they teach. Why are we being told by someone outside of our school or community tell us what our kids need to know?

This doesn't mean that teaching should be anarchy, with each school doing whatever they want whenever they want. We still need to have an agreed upon idea of what we (meaning teachers as a whole across the nation/world) think our students should know. The issue is figuring out how to get there. To me, that is the magic of writing a curriculum that meets the needs of your students. It is not a fixed document, it is fluid and can be revised. It is not paired to a textbook or a reading series. It is a loose framework that acts as a map to help us navigate through the school year and move our students toward the larger essential questions and understandings that we want them to have.

So please, trust us. Know that we are professionals whose expertise is children. Let us use what we know about our students and about teaching and learning to craft a curriculum together that best meets the needs of our community. Let us have input into the document. Foster conversations across grade levels about skills and concepts students need to have or understand to be successful. Stop calling purchased reading series and social studies textbooks 'curricula.'

Trust us, please.
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The 1st Annual Philadelphia Education Conference


I just learned about a wonderful event here in Philly this weekend, the 1st Annual Philadelphia Education Conference. It is a day of conversations and panel discussions with the ultimate goal of hashing out some tangible steps toward positive reform of education here in Philadelphia.

While some of you may be aware that Education Nation, an NBC media event is also starting this weekend, I urge you to attend the Philadelphia Education Conference, which I'm sure will be a much more localized, grassroots and meaningful conversation.

Some of the listed attendees are:

Jim Stephens - Founder of Elite Rescue, Recovery, and Rebuilding 

Greg Trainor - Philadelphia Community Corps, United Philly

Alex McNeil and Project EDU Temple University-City Year

Howard Jean - Director of Education at Cheyney University, Founder of the national programs Call Me M.I.S.T.E.R and S.E.I.L. (Success through Education, Inspiration, and Leadership)

Gina Renzi - University of Pennsylvania Director of The Rotunda, After School Programs 

Bunmi Samuel - Freedom Schools, Director of Education of Friends Neighborhood Guild, Community Leader for Health and Nutrition at -EPIC, Board Member of Temple University's Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities

James Elam - Professor, Mentor, Founder of Pride Academy After School Program - a three tiered program consisting of education, arts, and athletics

Chuck Treece - several after school programs and youth Skating initiatives, Pew Fellowsip for the Arts Recipient, NARAS Board

Isaiah Thomas - Associate Dean of Students, Athletic Director, and Head Boys Basketball Coach at Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School. Candidate for Philadelphia City Council at Large

Tony Payton - State Representative

Tony Alvarez - Mariani Bracetti Academy Charter School - Dir. of School and Community Development

Tiffany Bacon - Connect to Protect Health Collective; Public Health Management Corp, PRAISE 103.9, 100.3 THE BEAT, 107.9 WRNB
Tiffany Thompson - Youth Health Empowerment Program (Y-HEP)

Russell Hicks - 100 Black Men of Philadelphia, E3 Centers

Richard DeJesus - Richard and Friends of the Community

Jeff Murray - YouthStarz

John Price - University of Pennsylvania Policy and Procuedure Department - OST Programs

Jonathan Centeno - ASPIRA, EPIC Kensington

Monica Montgomery - Arete Magazine

Celandra Rice Prince - Elements of Inspiration Radio Show, 1460 AM

Mark Savage, Jr. - Spoken Word Artist, Bright Lights Foundation, 528 Crescendo Productions

Ann Guise - Bright Lights Foundation

Ryshon Jones - Spoken Word Artist

Jamilla Harris, Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement (PYPM)

Darryl Clark - Help Educate Leaders for the Present (H.E.L.P.)

Alison Lin - Children's Hospital of Philadelphia - Connect to Protect Initiative

Thomas Butler - Project Grad ( Philly Chapter) 

When: Sunday, June 5th from 10am to 4pm. Doors open at 9am 

Where: Room 200 at Temple University’s Howard Gittis Student Center
1755 N. 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122.

Tickets are only $10.

You can purchase tickets through TicketLeap here.

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Ending the Year on a Positive Note


In my most recent Edutopia post I challenged my readers to make a list of at least 5 things they've done better this year.

Here are mine:

1) Assessment 
I have taken a lot of time this year to work on my methods and purposes for assessment. While I am still stuck with a numerical gradebook system, I feel that I have a better grasp on what and whether my students are learning and I am able to focus my lessons more on specific learning outcomes.

2) Choosing the Right Tool
This year I stuck to only a few tools with my students. Some of this is because of the slow Internet speed at my school, but some of it is due to my realization that it's about depth not breadth.

3) Allowing for Re-dos
For the first time, I allowed my students to revise and resubmit their work. Rather than handing back their grade as a 'done deal,' I handed back their graded rubric with places for improvement. 90% of my students worked to revise their work and I am 100% sure they learned more through the revising than they did creating the project.

4) Making Sure that Everyone is Done
As a 'prep' teacher, specialist teacher, whatever my title may be, I am stuck with a limited amount of time with my students. Some classes I see only 45 minutes once a week and, should there be a holiday or trip, even less than that. In the past I have felt forced to move on once we have spent a certain amount of time on a project partly because of the requirement that I have a certain number of grades in my grade book each marking period (ridiculous) and partly because I felt that we just couldn't spend a month on one project. This year, however, I allowed my students to spend a month on projects. I tracked student progress and made sure that every student completed their work, even if it meant pulling them for a small period of time outside of their scheduled time with me. This has made a huge difference in how my students have progressed as well as giving both them and me a sense of accomplishment.

5) Collaborating with My Colleagues
This year, as many of you know, I started at a new school. I was so excited to collaborate and learn with my new colleagues, many of whom are enthusiastic about technology.  This year I have done more collaborating, whether it be team teaching or doing a model lesson or bringing technology into a classroom to enhance a unit of study, than any of my previous years. I hope that next year will hold even more possibilities for teachers to bring tech into their classrooms.

What are YOU most proud of this year?
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Should We Still Be Teaching Keyboarding Skills?


keyboard photo from Flickr

So I've been talking with my former college professor about keyboarding skills, how kids learn them and whether we should still be teaching them.

Part of me looks down at my swiftly moving fingers (I don't look down that often) and thinks "Yeah!" being able to type fast is awesome!

Another part of me remembers the first time I rotated an iPad and tried to use both hands to type on the screen. It was not very successful...I kind of made up my own new system.

As a lab teacher, I spent very little time on keyboarding skills. This is for two reasons.

1) My students have already taught themselves how to keyboard on their phones or at home.

2) Were I to focus on keyboarding instruction until my students had mastered Home Row, there would be no time for video editing, music editing, teaching Digital Citizenship, web design or learning programming skills.

Part of me wonders if I am doing my students a disservice. Will they end up in college or high school unable to type fast enough? Will they sit down to take that online GRE or writing test and fail because they have run out of time?

Then the other part chimes in: "Are your students entering a world that rewards fast typers or a world that rewards innovative thinkers and creative minds?"

What do you think?

If you have any research or articles pertaining to this topic, please share them in the comments!
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The Falsehood of School Choice


Pennsylvania's new Governor, Tom Corbett, ran on a platform of school vouchers. He and his neighbor, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been pushing for legislation to bring more of them to their respective states.  Most of the arguments I have heard supporting school vouchers is that they support school choice.

This idea that being able to choose from a traditional public school, a public charter, a parochial school or a private independent school is true 'choice' is a huge falsehood.
When we talk about school choice, we should be talking about choices in instructional models. We know that not all students learn the same. We know that some students can succeed in the traditional model. We know that many do not. We also know that there are a variety of alternatives to the traditional model.

I recently went to a public gathering focused around the new independent school opening here in Philadelphia called Philly Free School. The founders of the school have spent a lot of time visiting similar schools which are based off of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachussets, a democratic school in which students direct their own learning and make all the decisions in the school through a democratic process.  In the informative literature from the Fairhaven School that they distributed at the meeting, there was a sheet for parents to help them understand and explain the school's model to others. It was called, "OK, so you're sort of like..." followed by a list of school models and a comparison between them and the Fairhaven model. Some of the school models on the list were a Montessori School, a Waldorf School, a Progressive School, Homeschooling and Student Governments in traditional schools.

This list shows what true school choice really looks like.

The Philly Free School is an amazing model. It takes a certain kind of student to be able to function there and it takes even that kind of student time to adjust when coming from a traditional school setting. It is not for everyone. Similarly, a Montessori School model might be too open and free for some students (though I would argue it would be too open and free for the parents rather than the student), while another model might be too test-driven for a family.

Recently, I have been reflecting on my own education. I experienced a variety of school models over the course of my K-12 education career, some of which fit me well and some which did not. I started my schooling in a Montessori school. I then entered Kindergarten at a small private school that stressed project-based learning. I spent K-3rd grades tackling a huge, multi-layered project each year.  I also spent my summers exploring beaches, marshes and reading tons of books of my own choosing (some might call this self-directed learning).

As I entered 4th grade in the new district that my parents had chosen to move to due to its high-performing schools, I began my first experience with traditional public schooling. Needless to say, I was miserable. I was placed in a Talented and Gifted program (TAG), for which I was pulled out of class, but school was much, much different. Timed tests, bullying and few projects or student-centered learning.

I spent the rest of my school years in the local public schools until senior year when I applied to Walkabout, an alternative program for high school seniors. During my senior year I completed a 4 week community service project during which I only went to school once a week, went on two week-long backpacking trips, and completed a 6-week internship in NYC that I landed on my own. During my internship I also only attended school once a week.  That year was one of the best years of school I can remember.

One aspect of Walkabout and the private school I attended was that they were selective. There were a limited number of slots in the Walkabout program and the director of the program hand-selected students from the applicants, choosing only those for whom the program was a good fit.  To enter the private school I took a series of IQ and other tests (some which helped me earn scholarship money) as a sort of screening process.

I'm not sure that this means that traditional public schools should be selective, but I think that were there more diversity among public school models, not just climates, resources and performance then school choice would make more sense.  Not all schools work for all kids, so why are we pretending that they do? Rather than offering boot camp 'reform' schools for 'problem children,' perhaps they just need a school that is more geared toward self-directed learning? Maybe those students who constantly get in trouble would benefit from the opportunity for more flexibility in their day. What about those students who are successful in traditional school but leave without any sense of what their true desires are?

We need to stop thinking about school choice at face value and begin to think more deeply about the choices we are really giving students and their families.
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A Tribute to My Mother


I'm not usually one for Hallmark holidays, but I felt the urge to celebrate my Mother, Nancy, in all of her awesomeness.

My Mom and I at The Barnes Foundation April 2011

I am thankful for having a Mother who never told me what I had to do or who I had to be as a child, who let me be myself (pink hair and all), who believed in me and still does while peppering in motherly advice whenever she can.

As grown woman I now can appreciate my Mom's independence, her strong will, and her intelligence. She has become a good friend and I love that we can laugh, reminisce and hold deep political conversations all in the span of 20 minutes.

Thank you Mom for being who you are and for helping me become who I am today.
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Is Teaching an Art or a Science?


The Barnes Foundation
Yesterday my mother and I visited the Barnes Foundation,  a wonderful museum outside of Philadelphia. Unlike a traditional museum, this house-school-museum was curated by Dr. Barnes, its founder and remains in its original design according to the rules set forth by him in his will and through his Foundation.  In addition, rather than artwork being organized by time period, style or artist, each wall of the museum is organized according to Dr. Barnes' own interpretations. Some walls have a particular color that runs throughout each work, some walls position works to show how artists were inspired by others and sometimes there is furniture, candlesticks or sculptures by the wall that serve Dr. Barnes' vision. I remember two Renoir paintings of fairly large women, each with a fairly large chair perched underneath them. Alongside the paintings are pieces of ironwork that Dr. Barnes collected and placed on the walls, adorning the paintings, with their shapes often mirroring shapes in the paintings.

One of the most poignant parts of the experience was learning about how different artists like Cezanne and Renoir influenced each other by looking at paintings right next to each other. In fact, the docent who guided us through the house explained the importance of these relationships and how common they were among artists, even over the course of decades. In fact, the collection at the museum is so rich that we could look at a painting from the 18th century and see how it influenced an artist from the 19th century. As a former art student, I remember studying different painters and analyzing their techniques and styles. I remember seeing what my peers were doing and being influenced and inspired them, even at a young age.

In fact, art as we know it would not exist if artists had not shared their work, critiqued and talked about each others' work or picked up techniques they admired. I'm sure some of you have at some point read about or imagined those dark caf├ęs thick with smoke with artists and poets sitting around drinking absynthe, smoking cigarettes and reading poetry or critiquing art. These kinds of communities are glorified in the history books as labs of innovation and a vital part of our cultural heritage.

As a teacher, I find that I practice the same kinds of sharing, reflection and inspiring dialogue with my peers, though my art is not painting, but teaching.

Some of the conversations I've been reading recently point to the fact that many schools, districts and educational leaders look at teaching as a scientific algorithm; something that can be pared down to scientific data-based methods.

So, I wondered, is teaching an Art or a Science? I decided to poll my colleagues.

It was a loaded question, as many people who answered my poll argued. Here are some of the responses I received on Twitter:

However, I was curious to see what people would choose when faced with only an 'either/or' situation.

Here are the results of the poll:

If you go to the poll page, you will see that most people believe that teaching is truly a mixture of both, but still, when faced with a decision, most people (a large majority) chose the 'art' option.

As for the argument about art being both a Science and an Art, I would agree. However, I would also argue that a big part of art includes science. A good artist knows the chemical composition of his or her materials. Certain paints contain cadmium, certain chemicals have certain effects on the texture of paints, still others can turn a paint into a glaze. Master artists understand colors and use them purposefully to create an emotion, an experience or an impression. In that way, Art is a Science, but we still consider it Art.

In the same way, a good teacher knows the composition of his or her curriculum and his or her students. Master teachers understand their students and the curriculum and know how to create learning experiences for his or her students. This requires a scientific understanding of how the brain learns and how to engage students, but it takes an artist to create a powerful, deep learning experience.

What do you think?

Barnes Foundation photo by marybethhertz on Flickr
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Designing Instruction for Learning


I just finished this fabulous book by Ken Washburn that really has me thinking about instructional design. The Architecture of Learning has also made me more concerned about the direction that education is headed in this country.  My main takeaway is embodied in this quote:
Instructional design differs from lesson planning.
I have been lesson planning for years.  I think about what I want my kids to learn and what content they need to know and, in the past, I have designed for how I would deliver the ideas and content. However, I now have a better understanding of how important it is to plan for how my students will build knowledge and how to guide them through the exploratory phases of learning that lead to deeper connections and a better chance of retention and ability to apply new knowledge to new situations.

To truly design learning experiences is a pretty exciting idea. Washburn's blueprints for skills and concepts really helped me pull all of my professional learning this year come together into something cohesive. His model follows this sequence, based on how the brain learns:

Experience--> Comprehension--> Elaboration--> Application--> Intention

All of the approaches I've been studying point to the importance of letting students explore content before assessment and of addressing misunderstandings before we move on and expect them to be able to apply what they have learned. Giving them a point of reference is also important. Washburn does a great job explaining how the simple use of stories can help provide a metaphor that can guide a student through the learning process. Being able to say, "remember when...." and compare new situations to previous experiences is powerful.

I am hoping to use this experience stage of learning when I teach my 6th graders Scratch. Before they start coding, they will practice acting out lines of Scratch code kind of like a play. That way, they have a visual and sensory frame of reference for the code they will be writing.

I am looking forward to mapping out units this summer. I can't wait to put myself in my students' shoes and plan for how they will organize and unpack content and synthesize skills to experience learning that lasts.

This year I have taught fewer units, but feel that my kids have learned more than in many of my previous years due to my focus on instructional design for learning rather than just lesson planning to deliver content. By taking the time to let my students explore the tools we use and by taking the time to scaffold them toward both proficiency with tools and with content and concepts I have found that my students have surpassed all of my previous students in retention and ability to apply the concepts and skills I want them to know.

As Washburn says,

...teachers combine four elements to design instruction: an understanding of students, a knowledge of learning, an awareness of subject matter types, and a sequence of classroom activities that mirrors how the brain processes new data.
The scary part? I have never seen unit development or curriculum mapping that puts this in action in any school I have ever worked in.

The great part? I attended a few schools that did. And man what a difference it made in my life!

If you are looking for practical advice on how to design instruction, I highly recommend this book!
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edcamp Philly 2011


I am so excited to announce the second annual edcamp Philly!  It is a day full of learning and making connections with teachers just like you!

When: Saturday, May 21st
Where: Jon Huntsman Hall, University of Pennsylvania
Cost: FREE!

The day is completely unstructured until that morning, when the schedule of sessions is built by the attendees themselves. Sessions can range from discussions about assessment to sharing of Web 2.0 tools to interactive sessions.  There is a lot of social networking and use of technology, but it is NOT a technology conference. Next to someone with an iPad you will also see someone taking notes on a legal pad. However, if you are looking to open up your classroom to more technology this is the place to go.

The best part of edcamp? The Rule of Two Feet.  If you walk into a session and it's not what you expected or you are not impressed, you can simply choose a different session.

What's more, you can take tips, tricks and ideas back to your classroom on Monday and the whole day is FREE!

For more about edcamp, visit our website and check out the video below:

Ed Camp from True Life Media on Vimeo.
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What We Can Learn from Peer Pressure


Tonight I heard a great story on Marketplace about using Peer Pressure to affect social change.

The interviewee, Tina Rosenberg, explained how some groups, rather than focusing only on education used, essentially, Personal Learning Networks to promote social change. She sums it up below:

" connecting them to other people, by having them be a member of this close group, and by giving them a sense of a more positive future, and by using peers who had been in the same situation and were telling them, 'Here's what I was then and here's what I am now, and you too can change,' they found that this was very effective." 
I couldn't help but make the connection between these programs and what goes on in the tight-knit group of educators using social media.  We learn about tools and practices and we get ideas from other educators by being part of a like-minded community of educator with whom we can share our experiences.

We can also take this idea to heart when trying to figure out the best way to get other teachers on board with social media and technology integration. Education isn't enough. Perhaps they need some old fashioned peer pressure.

You can listen to the story here:

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Why We Should Be Teaching Social Media


When the story of Natalie Monroe, the "Teacher Blogger" broke earlier this year, it rustled a lot of feathers. There were those that stood in firm support of her 1st Amendment rights, there were those that called for her to be fired immediately, and there were those that denounced the idea that teachers should be blogging at all. My opinion was pretty much in line with that of Principal Chris Lehmann here in Philly.

So when I received a call from the Philadelphia Inquirer asking me my opinion, I was elated.  You can read the article here.

But this post isn't about the article at all. Well, it's not about the content of the article. What struck me was the comment area. Now, comment areas are renowned for being minefields for expressing everything from well thought out replies to anonymous rants and attacks. What was new for me was that this rarely happens on my blog or on those of my 25+ good friends who blog. When it does, the blogger attempts to keep the discussion civil, and if unsuccessful, thanks the person for their opinions and ends it there.

When I read some of the comments on the article, I couldn't help but think that they are a perfect example of why social media and blogging should be taught in schools!

(these are screenshots of actual comments from the article)

Lesson #1 that I teach to my students is that once you click "Post," "Send," or "Submit," your comment may exist forever. Even if you take it down.

Lesson #2 is already explained pretty well above--don't say anything that you wouldn't say if you were standing in front of the person.  It is all too easy to hide behind a screen name and say whatever you please without considering the consequences of your words.

Lesson #3 is 'stay focused'--if you're leaving a comment, make sure that you stick to the topic at hand or your comment is pretty much worthless.

I'm not afraid of disagreement when it comes to ideas, in fact, I welcome them (when they are presented in a thoughtful and respectful way). It is important, however, to know how to handle disagreement when you can't hear the tone of voice behind them or you're not sure if it is a personal attack.

Lesson #4--don't engage 'trolls' or bullies.  I teach this to my students so that they know how to handle the ever-feared 'cyberbully.' Included in that lesson is how to report the user or block them.

With more and more stories coming out about students being bullied and about regretful Facebook postings and tweets, it's now or never with this up and coming generation of kids.

Luckily, there are lots of talented and forward-thinking teachers out there guiding their students in the right direction.

If you must know how to leave a quality comment, just ask the students in Ms Yollis' class:

Now what does this have to do with me blogging?

I have always been a reflective person. I have always needed to work my way through ideas, whether it be verbally or in writing. Through my blog I have been able to pinpoint instruction that works, celebrate lessons that have been successful and I have sought out advice from colleagues when I needed a helping hand. Many of my posts are crafted with the intention of helping others who may also be going through the same struggles or to provide resources to my readers.

Now, imagine being taught math by a teacher who was not allowed to multiply. Imagine the difference between being taught writing by someone who is certified in teaching writing and being taught writing by someone who is certified and has also written a novel...which would you prefer?

Young people are blogging and leaving comments all over the web and they need role models to learn from. Obviously, going by what others write in the comment area of blogs, articles and YouTube videos will not teach them how to be good digital citizens.  Only practice doing the real thing will.

That said, we should also be teaching them how to use blogging as a reflective platform, not a place to rant and attack others. Who will work to challenge the next generation to break through the divisiveness and the negativity we see so much in today's society, especially when it comes to civil discourse on the web? As more and more writing is done online, who will guide students if not their teachers?

Comments appreciated :)

...just keep it civil, guys.....
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And the Winner Is....


Congratulations to Amy, whose comment in my Super-Powered Word Study contest had the most votes!

She has won a copy of Super-Powered Word Study to use with her students.

Congrats, Amy!
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Super-Powered Word Study: Teaching With Comics


Recently, I was lucky enough to get my hands on this fantastic book, Super-Powered Word Study.

What I love about the book is its focus on research-based strategies. This is not a simple 'comics will make kids want to read' book. The authors James Bucky Carter and Erik A Evensen have created a systematic approach to using comics to teach students how to decode words based on their Latin roots.  Their materials and methods are based on research on how the brain learns. The comics aren't bad either...

The main characters of each short comic are named after a Latin root (prefix or suffix) and the stories are deliberately interlaced with context clues to help scaffold students' understanding of the roots. Activities include word sorting and scavenger hunts within the stories as well as a final piece requiring students to craft their own stories using the roots themselves.  Each comic spans a week and follows the natural progression of building understanding through sorting and categorizing words through the application stage at the end of the week where students get to show what they understand by using the words in a new way.  In addition, understanding word roots will aid students in understanding the meanings of new words of all kinds that they may come across in the future.

I gave a copy to the sixth grade teacher across the hall and she reported that a few students snuck it away from her desk to read!

The book includes a CD that contains interactive comic-building software and pdfs of comics.

You can listen to a free webinar with the authors here.

I have a free copy to give away to the commenter with the best story about why their students will benefit from learning through Super-Powered Word Study!

The comment with the most 'thumbs up' votes by Monday, March 14th will win the book!
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Sometimes It Takes A Few Tries


My 6th graders are in the middle of building wikis about a topic of their choice. It has been a journey of learning how to evaluate sites, how to locate information, how to bookmark sites using Diigo and take notes with the highlighting feature. They have learned how to create a wiki and plan out their front page, and they have had time to explore editing wiki pages.

Before we began building I had them plan out their site on paper using a template that looked like their wiki. However, as my students were building their sites I began to realize that they were putting all of their information on the front page. It was time to talk about pages and navigation.

We spent some time looking at websites and locating the navigation and discussing the purpose of navigation. We looked at the titles of pages and discussed why the titles had been chosen and whether they were helpful or not.

Back to the wikis and they still didn't get it.

So, in desperation, I tweeted out a simple question:

 I got a lot of great responses, but one from my friend Michelle stuck out:

Today we gathered together and I had a student give his topic. I wrote the topic (lightning) in a bubble in the middle of the screen and then told the class, "Let's pretend that Carl* is writing a book about Lightning. What chapters would you include in that book, Carl?"  He then provided names like Dangers of Lightning, Types of Lightning as well as a chapter dedicated to photos of lightning. Things were looking good...

I then asked a second student who I knew was researching an individual, to provide his topic. Since many of the students are researching famous people, it was imperative that we do a similar exercise with such a topic.

The second student provided his topic and his chapter titles. It clicked.

The students were then sent to their seats where they used pencil and paper to draw out a map of their book title (their topic) and the chapters. Most of them were bent over, intently listing their chapters and building their map.

The red check shows that I have read over and discussed their 'chapters.'

The real proof of comprehension will come when I see them again on Friday, but I am fairly certain that they will be ready to start building their pages.

*not real student name
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It's Time to Take Our Schools Back


I moved to Philadelphia in August 2002 with a lot of energy and no idea what I was doing here. Nearly 9 years later I have built a career, bought a house and am proud to call Philadelphia home. I think that there are amazing things happening in this city and it is an exciting place to be. The city is full of creative, inspired and passionate people of all ages. Between The Mural Arts Program, events like Ignite Philly, a movement of food co-ops, farmers markets as well as a number of civic associations that work hard to make their neighborhoods great places to live.

The majority of these groups are community-run and are not funded by the City or the State. Often, the people running them work full time along with the work they do for their neighborhoods and the larger Philadelphia community. There are a lot of hard working individuals trying to make Philadelphia the best city it can be.

So, I ask, why does the state still run our schools?

It is time for these concerned and involved citizens to say "enough is enough." We've seen the enraged parents, the protests and the shady actions by the School District.

Until we have an elected school board that truly represents the parents, families and stakeholders of our city, then we will continue to have change forced on us and we will continue to lose our voices.

I don't pretend to know where to start, but I wonder who is with me?
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Let Them Do it Their Way


As my 4th graders begin their research projects we have been discussing and experimenting with keywords. Today they put together a list of questions about their topic (a famous African American) to prepare for starting their research. I gave them a choice of how they listed the questions. I modeled the list method and the 'idea map' (graphic organizer) method while also telling them that they could organize their questions in whatever fashion made sense to them.

As I walked around I noticed a big drawing of Michael Jordan on one of my students' papers. This student had been asking lots of questions about the assignment, but I had been so sure that we had cleared everything up, so my hear sank when I saw the drawing. I double checked with the student as I approached to take a closer look and he looked at me and said, "You said we could do it however makes sense to us, right?" I looked closer.

He had been writing his questions inside the drawing! It made my day.

Let's rethink our practice of making everybody do it 'just like the teacher!'
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Active Grade: Create Standards-Based Reports


One my recent obsessions this school year is figuring out the best assessment strategies and methods of reporting student progress.  While I have not even covered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mastering how I assess my students and provide them with timely, meaningful feedback, I have been struggling this year with translating these practices into the limiting, number-based, weighted, percentile gradebook system that I am currently required to use.

I recently tweeted out that I needed to be a software designer so I could develop a system that would allow me to report how my students were progressing on standards along with the ability to provide individualized comments.

Within minutes I received a tweet from Riley Lark, who stated that he himself had gone through the same challenge and had come up with a solution himself. His solution, ActiveGrade, provides a customizable gradebook that allows the teacher to enter standards, assessments and grades based on either a percentile scale or a rubric scale.  Teachers can then print out or email customizable reports that automatically populate individual grade reports in the form of a letter for each student.  Teachers can input personalized comments for each student to be included in the report.

I tested it by easily copy/pasting in one of my class lists and was quite satisfied with the report it created. I was also excited by the opportunity to show a list of standards rather than random-seeming tests/quizzes or other assessments that don't paint a complete picture of what a student knows or doesn't know.  All assessments can be grouped by standard to paint a picture of a student's progress toward mastering a standard.

You can try it for free for 14 days or pay just $12 until September.  If you want to start using it next year it will cost about $40 for the entire year.
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What Can We Learn from Gaming?


photo courtesy of Clover_1 on Flickr

I have been thinking a lot recently about video gaming and what we can learn from it as educators. This is not a new concept or a new discussion. I've been seeing things happen in my classroom that really make me think there's something to this idea.  My recent reflections and changes in classroom practice don't actually involve my students playing games to learn new skills or concepts (though there is research about the positive effects of this), but rather on the broader structure of games in relation to classroom practices.

For one, while watching my students play games I notice that they easily just click 'retry' or 'new game' or 'start over' and keep trying until they master whatever skill that game's level requires. They don't worry about making mistakes because they know they will get another chance. They learn more and more each time they have to do a level or game task over. We should be building these kinds of experiences into our classrooms.

In addition, games provide immediate feedback. Not just any feedback, but usually feedback that helps a student fix or improve on their previous performance. We should be giving students as many opportunities as possible for useful and timely feedback.

Games also have a purpose, an underlying goal.  Sometimes there are mini-goals that help get you to the final goal, beating the game.  Players can focus on the mini-goals rather than be overwhelmed by the ultimate goal of beating the game. There is usually something that indicates how far along they are toward their final goal, which makes them feel like they're getting somewhere.  We should be setting manageable goals for our students that help them move toward mastery while providing timely feedback on their progress.

I have been giving my students chances to revise and revisit their work, and I find that they learn more from this experience than they do while creating the project the first time around. I have also been having them share their work with their peers to solicit feedback.  From listening in on the sharing sessions, I also find that they have to explain their choices in their work, which means they are thinking about the choices they make.  As for goals, I have been making a point of breaking projects down into manageable chunks and focusing on small goals for each class period so students are aware of what they are focusing on and so my assessments are focused on the mini-goals that will lead to mastery.

Don't think that things are as perfect as they sound. Adding these gaming-like aspects to my classroom is a new endeavor, which means I'm still figuring out the best way to implement the approach into my classroom. However, the immediate effects and results have been noticeable.

I am interested in reading more about the Quest to Learn school in  New York City, which focuses on gaming concepts throughout their curriculum.

I would love to know your thoughts.
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I'll admit it.

I'm overwhelmed these days.

I feel that I am a Jane of all trades and a Master of none.

I work hard all day ensuring that I am the best teacher I can be, and then I come home to be the best girlfriend I can be while also maintaining blogs, an online professional life, working to start up a food co-op and maintaining priceless face to face friendships.

When I log onto Twitter and Facebook these days (it's been less and less recently) I notice the same names and handles scrolling by and I wish that I had time to be so connected, to devote so much time to sitting in front of the computer.

How'd I get here?

Part of it's my own fault--I can't say "no"--and part of it is because I crave dialogue and love learning new things.

However, is it worth barely talking to your loved one for hours at a time while sitting mere feet from each other?

Can it replace a drink with an old friend or a night hanging out with the ladies?

Is it more important than getting to know my community and becoming involved in local issues that directly affect me?

I'm starting to think not.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not giving up entirely, but I will need to make a list in the coming weeks and begin to pare down my responsibilities and my priorities.

I am invested in my professional community, many of whom I now consider close friends, and I am invested in the future of education as we know it. I can't detach myself from the world I dove into almost 2 years ago and I won't.

However, I know that I don't NEED to be online 24/7 and I know that those relationships will still be there as long as we are all dedicated to what we do day in and day out.

So for now I will focus on my relationships, my teaching and the co-op that myself and my colleagues have worked so hard to bring to this point.  I will blog about my teaching, I will read my RSS feeds, I will travel to conferences and engage in dialogue, but you might not 'see' me around as much.

I'd rather get a hold on what's important than try to do a lot of things poorly.
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I Told You So


I have been fighting filtering battles ever since I first entered a computer lab as a technology teacher almost 4 years ago. 

Today I got my vindication.

I am lucky that my new school does not block YouTube. My 6th graders are doing research projects that will culminate in them creating a Google Site about their topic. Today they began to (yes, it's old school) sketch out on paper a basic design for their site. As they thought about their homepage, many of them asked if they could use video. "Of course," I replied.
I quickly harkened back to last week when my friend Ann and I were embedding video into a Google Site for a presentation we did together this weekend.

"Go to YouTube," I said. See if you can find a video there. YouTube videos are easily embeddable into Google Sites with the click of a button.

As many of them searched the 'dreaded' YouTube for relevant videos, I had not ONE student searching for inappropriate content or looking up videos that were not 'kid-friendly.'


The task was authentic, and they had a purpose for searching the site.

Blocking these kinds of resources denies our students access to material that is relevant, interesting and informative.

One student, who is researching drums, bookmarked a video of Justin Beiber playing the drums in her Diigo library with a note: "Even famous people play the drums."  Another student found a video of a lightning storm for his site about lighting and electricity.

If we design authentic and meaningful experiences and use good classroom management and common sense when using these tools, we can rest assured that little harm will be done.
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Educon 2.3 Takeaways


This weekend was a blur of ideas and passion, and I can't even begin to describe the feeling of being surrounded by such intelligent and energetic educators, many of whom I consider good friends and who push my thinking on a daily basis.  Rather than go into depth about each and every session I attended, I decided to do a run-down of my takeaways from the weekend, broken down by topic.  There are links to each session's Educon page and some sessions have a link to a website or wiki shared by the presenters.

Blended Learning Opportunities
Tony Baldasaro

Tony's blended learning charter school is doing amazing things by blending content with experiential learning. His students not only complete academic coursework, but complete experiential projects in a field of their choice.
  • Passion is when we lose ourselves in a task, when we never get tired of engaging with something, when we become emotionally invested in something.  
  • Angela Meiers suggested that part of being passionate is suffering. While I'm not totally convinced that you need to suffer to be passionate, I think that there is an emotional investment in our passions.
  • We can't expect children to find their passion if we don't expose them to as many experiences as possible and let them tinker with ideas and try out different roles?

    Standards Based Grading
    Mike Ritzius and Kristen Swanson--session site

    This is one of my recent obsessions (grading, assessment in general) and I was lucky enough to sit next to a technology teacher like myself who does a standards-based report card for her class. She shared a great site with me: SnapGrades. This site does have a fee, but it creates standards-based report cards and aligns perfectly with my current classroom practices.
    • What is the purpose of grading?
    • How do standards based grades affect college acceptance? (most agreed that they don't)
    • There is a lot of education that needs to be done with the families when switching over. George Couros spoke about how he was clear with the parents about why they were switching to narrative report cards rather than grades.
    • Standards based grades are a better indicator of what your child really knows.
    • When we average out grades, we penalize students for growth.
    • When we give students zeros, it's an easy way for them to 'check out' and not learn the content.
    I could talk about this topic for DAYS. I loved hearing what George Couros had to say about his school's approach to getting rid of grades. He explained the move to the parents by telling them that it would be a true reflection of what their child knows.  There was also a lot of talk about the disconnect between K-12 and Post-Secondary education, especially when it came to college acceptance.   

      The Future of Research 
      Joyce Valenza, Shannon Miller, Gwyneth Jones--session site

      There was some great conversation here about what students 'need' to know and the kinds of skills they need to be successful researchers. In addition, there was some conversation about 'old school' vs 'new school' methods, tools and resources. 
      • You can't teach research unless students are actually DOING research. They need to learn while they are doing.
      • Use citation tools to make citation easier ( knowing citation is an important skill. It is like knowing the common code of communication for information.
      • Do term papers serve a purpose or are they an outdated form of assessment?
      • Do we love or hate Wikipedia?  It lets students know when articles are poorly references, provides additional resources at the bottom of articles and includes things that you won't find in a traditional encyclopedia. However, for younger students it can be hard to read and digest while also evaluating the content.
      • Students need to know how to evaluate information, collect information, synthesize what they have collected and be fluent in using keywords.  They also need to know where to go for the information they are seeking.

        What is Literacy Today?
        David Jakes and Laura Deisley

        This was possibly the most engaging and fascinating conversation I had all weekend.  Neither David nor Laura provided concrete answers, but rather presented us with a continuum of probing questions. Me likey. I think we all need to bring it back to our schools.
        • Literacy---political act, human right, interpret/comprehend, participate, literacy vs fluency, power, civic participation
        • Is the notion of what it means to be literate different? Has literacy changed?
        • Has literacy been institutionalized?
        • Was there literacy before there was reading and writing?
        • Is there digital literacy or is it just literacy in a new context?
        • We are now reading in new places, so we often read more than we used to.
        • We now have reading breadth rather than depth
        • We have access to what we want to read, more choices.
        • This means we need to be our own filter--a skill we must teach children.
        • We control what we read, which can lead to group think. (David Warlick)
        • Since most people get distracted by links and may never finish what they started reading, you can control the reader by how many links you put into your post and where you place them.
        • You can also create a path for the reader with hyperlinks--a conscious act
        • Book Glutton--read books socially and synchronously with others.
        • What about schools that don’t have access---are these students the new illiterate?
        • Is it OK to stick to functional literacy that depends on context?---being literate in the ‘world’ in which you live

        Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?
        Myself and Ann Leaness--session site

        There was so much more to this conversation, but it was very face-to-face, so I did not take notes or tweet at all!  One of the most exciting parts of the session was listening to Zac Chase's student talk about his own experiences with the Internet, distraction and his 'old brain.'
        • I don't miss my old network, but I miss my old brain.-- Ben Wilkoff
        • Do we control the tool or do we adapt to the tool?
        • What does it mean to be a patient reader? 
        • Are we witnessing evolution and how big of a deal is neuroplasticity?

          The Classroom of Tomorrow
          Zoe Pipe and Rodd Lucier

          We used Livescribe pens to record our discussions. As certain topics were discussed, I made markings on the special Livescribe paper. This allowed us to easily find parts of the conversation by clicking on the marks I made. It was difficult, but very cool.

          • Learning spaces should allow for a variety of learning areas.
          • Schools should be open to the world through the use of windows and by designs that allow each learning space to access the outdoors.
          • There should be a space where students can lounge or relax.
          • Should we still use the word "classroom" when much of our learning might not be contained within walls or learning might occur across many physical spaces?

           Other takeaways:
          • a large presence of administrators---it is refreshing to see many school leaders create learning networks and join the discussions either as participants or session leaders
          • are we saying anything new?--- I find that the group of educators that attends Educon tends to be of the same outlook, mindset and viewpoint. Many of the conversations we have had over the weekend are nothing new. How many times can we hash out an idea and say "We should do something about this" before something actually gets done?
          • what are the new conversations?---what do we really need to be discussing as we move forward into the new year?
          • I have some pretty awesome friends that I only get see at special gatherings like this--social media is powerful, but nothing beats meeting someone face to face and seeing that they are just the same as they are in 140 characters. What's more, nothing beats face to face...period.

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            This is Why I Blog/Tweet/Use Social Media


            My last post, Research: One of the Hardest Things You'll Ever Do, was a reflection on a lesson with my 6th graders about evaluating sites.  I shared it with my network on Twitter and was met with some dialogue about my choice of "Is it a blog?" as an evaluation question.

            Here is some of the conversation:
            If I had never blogged about the experience and if I had never tweeted my blog post, I would have missed out on a concise, yet meaningful exchange that challenged me to think differently about my teaching. 
            It makes me wonder: how I ever did anything on my own before!

            Thanks to Bud Hunt and Tom Fullerton for pushing my thinking.
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            Research: One of the Hardest Things You'll Ever Do


            My 6th graders are about to embark on a journey for the next few weeks. While it may seem like an exaggeration, I tell them that "research is one of the hardest things you'll ever do."  Even as an adult, I find this statement is only a slight exaggeration.  They will be completing their first research project with me and I am really excited about it.

            Research is one of the hardest skills to teach, and, in the past, my efforts have had limited success.  This year, I have rethought my approach and have broken the process down into (hopefully) easily digestible steps.

            I asked them how many of them had done a research project before, and fewer than half raised their hands. I was expecting this, mostly because of the school's lack of resources for facilitating research (no library and no functional computer lab before this year). I told them that we would be taking it step by step to make the process easier for them.

            My students will be creating Google sites about their topic that they chose, so I explained how important it is to make sure that their website is factual and contains accurate information.

            After we used Schoology to post our research questions and topics, installed our Diigo toolbars and learned how to bookmark sites, we spent a class period learning how to evaluate sites.  I provided them with four sites and gave them a chance to review the sites for about 5 minutes, deciding which ones were real and which ones were fake. This is the page for the activity.

            After they had a chance to view the sites, we grouped together and, using the criteria, explored whether each site was real or fake.
            • is it a blog?
            • can anyone post here?
            • is it an educational or government site?
            • who is the author?
            • can I find this information anywhere else on the web?
            Sometimes, we made it through all of the criteria, but when we searched the web, we found that the site was fake or the information was false.  Students suggested that we "Google" to see if we could find more information about the topic. Each time I pulled up one of the sites, they easily moved through the steps, scrolling down to find the author and, in the case of the Tree Octopus, we discussed 'gut' feelings and that they can be a valid reason to mistrust a site.

            Using the criteria list, my students created an acronym to help them remember the criteria for evaluating sites. They came up with one that, to an outsider, might not make a lot of sense, but I know will be helpful to them. The beauty of it is that it was created by them, for them.

            Anyone post?
            Who is the author?
            Information somewhere else?

            I am excited by their engagement in the lesson and I believe that this activity, and my deliberate attempt to move slowly through the research project will ensure successful websites and a successful research process. 

            I will keep you posted.....

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            Taking the 365 Project Challenge


            As if I don't have enough to do, I have decided to do the 365 Project, a global project whose participants take and upload a photo a day for an entire year. I'm already going strong on Day 4.

            You can subscribe to my Posterous below to follow my adventures throughout the year.

            Here's hoping I can do it!

            If you are also taking the challenge, leave a link to your project photos in the comments!
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            Save Trees: Don't print me!