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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