Friday, December 2, 2011

The Common Core of Citizenship

Yesterday, I responded to a post on a listserv of AP English teachers in support of a sentiment shared by one teacher, Larry Hoffner, in his latest letter to UFT. In his post, he wrote, “Academic skills are certainly important, but the kind of citizens we produce is the real common core.” Although it is rare that there is something so universal as to solicit unanimous agreement, I thought this was surely such a rarity...but I was wrong. I should clarify that it was nearly unanimous, but one teacher did respond with the following, “I could not disagree with you more. Character is the province of the family, knowledge the province of the school.” 

The debate which ensued was a discussion on the role of schools in teaching values, and the sticking point to those who opposed the focus on values or standards of good citizenship was how to define these standards. Who gets to decide what character values are taught? How is it possible to define such a dynamic set of standards contained within a citizenship domain? What will be the accountability measurements for character, and if teachers are responsible for teaching it, are we similarly responsible if we produce a “bad apple”? These are all valid questions, but even our inability to answer them should not deter us from attempting to build character and citizenship within our schools.

Within this discussion, I still maintained that it is absolutely our responsibility to teach citizenship, that it is the one true interdisciplinary skill thread, and that it should be no more difficult to define and redefine as say, what literature should be taught or the critical skills set for the new century. All these concepts are ambiguous because of their dynamic nature but have certain lasting hallmarks. From this contribution, I was asked to “define this citizenship” which was a fascinating challenge at nine o’clock with only an hour to go until Top Chef Texas, but I decided to give it a whirl in hopes that the group contributions would help form a definition for a strand which does consistently need to be re-examined. Here is the start of the conversation which will hopefully be augmented with comments on the blog and within the listserv:

The constant components of citizenship are its communal nature and the relationship between rights & privileges (what the person receives as a citizen) and duty or responsibility (what he or she gives). If we examine that on the most intimate level, we see a family and a child's role within that social structure. A family provides and a child learns his or her place and how to contribute. We give and we take in our exchanges, sometimes trading in emotional currency in the form of politeness, compassion, or support...and other times in services or other forms of worth. The mores which define the standards for these exchanges (the redefinition of specific rights based on longstanding principles, for example, or the etiquette involved in participating in an online discussion, for example) are ever changing, but teaching a person how to understand the balance of give and take in any community is the everlasting essence of citizenship.

The obstacle to the true understanding of this relationship is ignorance. That is where we come in, for in the moments we share with our students providing them insight on man's story and how we have interacted in times of peace and of war, and providing them with living documentation of each era in the form of literature, we gift them with perspective. I think of the responsibility we have to teach this each time I read
To Kill a Mockingbird and share the scene where Scout stands on the porch and sees her world from Boo's eyes. Perspective allows for a 360 view of the exchange between us and our world.

I'll share the opening of our school creed, penned by our Head of School,
Jackie Westerfield. I find myself frequently referencing it when I wonder how to guide students. I think it is a wonderful, succinct expression of the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities.

“Together we build our future, one thought, one act, one moment at a time. We believe knowledge is freedom, freedom is choice, and choice is responsibility.”

The thread after this highlighted the role of community in shaping standards. Clearly the time period and nature of the community (home, school, city, nation, world) is organic, ever-changing, and inextricably tied to the standards of interaction. Still, the fundamental relationship between all of these and the nature of rights and responsibilities can and should absolutely be taught in a school. I’m looking forward to comments and posts which will add to this working definition.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Standards-Led, not Standards-Based

 Where to? What's next? How do I get there? 

We frequently hear the expression “standards-based” but lately I have been pondering the idea of letting the standards lead, quite literally. In inverting the equation and providing students access to the standards and accompanying learning experiences, I have started to recognize the positive impact on our “race to the top”.

Last year, in our little PK-12 school, we spent the year synthesizing standards and putting them into shared planning documents in “The Cloud”, taking our own dusty curriculum guide binders, our core mission-based standards, the 21st century skills framework, the state standards, and of course, the Common Core...and mashing them all together in a mission-specific series of collaborative, shared, and live documents. This was a key start because we now had our comprehensive map. This year, I was determined to lead two initiatives to extend our standards framework: 1) build up the new guides with multidimensional and differentiated learning experiences aligned with the standards and linked to them; and 2) to build up personalized learning matrices for students as a form of standards-based grading.

To lead this stage of the transition, I felt I had to put both into action myself. I began putting learning activities, centered around student choice and all standards-based, into weekly plans for my own classes, and delivering these to the students by email and social media early in the week. I anticipated that most students would do what they needed to do for each day but that they would at least have a map of where we were headed. I set no expectation for students to work ahead, yet to my surprise, this is exactly what happened. I began receiving notifications on student work submission through Google docs, and comment resolution notifications marking revisions to previously graded student work...neither of which were prompted by a message from me that either activity would lead to any form of additional credit. Admittedly, it has always been my policy to allow for student revisions to work so that students continue to strive for the highest level of achievement, but even students with high marks were making revisions and working ahead.

I quickly found myself having to plan ahead, way ahead, in preparation for the question, “What should I do next?” Oh, I suppose I should mention in case you are not yet aware, I only see my kids online most of the time rather than face-to-face, so during our real-time classes, I soon became engaged in continuous planning, assessment, revision, resubmission, inquiry, direction, and redirection in a very asynchronous fashion. I have to admit that it is very confusing sometimes, but similarly rewarding.

Another very pleasant surprise has been the effectiveness of choice in the activities. My middle school students frequently skip the “easier” grammar activities to take a stab at more sophisticated concepts like parallel structure and misplaced modifiers. The requirement of grammar log entries, documenting their understanding of the concepts, the activities completed, and the reflection on learning, keep them honest in their choice-based learning.

The second component of this mission to personalize the assessment process by skill was recently introduced in the form of a skills matrix assessment tool. I shared this document with my students this week at the end of the first term. On it, I indicated which skills we had not yet touched upon so that they did not feel compelled to self-assess in those areas if they had not met that skill elsewhere in the curriculum (as these are shared standards across disciplines in some cases). The students filled them out using a progressing key of ESPN, ranging from exceeds mastery to needs support; they loved the acronym of course) and then wrote a self-reflection narrative. To keep bias out, I told them I would be filling in my portion after they completed theirs. They seemed very interested and asked me several questions like, “Did we do X during the Y activity last week?”

My experiences this year have prompted me rethink the term “standards-based”; as a result, I have started replacing that with “standards-led”. Whereas the former implies we are basing our planning on standards, thereby excluding the student from the planning process and setting the minimal bar of success, the other connotes a visible-to-all goal to which students can climb. I have come to realize that when I let the highest standards lead, the students will follow. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In Defense of Today

Today we spend a great deal of time talking about what’s needed for tomorrow. For as much as we proclaim “carpe diem”, we frequently miss the moments of now, especially in interacting with our students.

When I was a young mom, nap times were precious moments of the day because they were the few minutes I could spend being productive. One day, when my daughter was a few months old, I caught myself wishing away the playful waking moments with her in anticipation of the next window of time I could get to work on my to-do list. I remember with pristine clarity the realization that I was wishing away the most precious time, an obvious conclusion but nonetheless an epiphany of sorts that day.

I thought of this moment after hearing several times today and over the last week echos of the same sentiment with respect to student preparation in life. Elementary school teachers are worried about preparing students for middle school, and middle school teachers worried about preparing students for high school. Why do we give so much homework and enforce an unforgiving calendar of due dates for high school students? To prepare them for college of course. In fact, we are preparing students for the whole 21st Century lest they be lost in the amorphous demands of the future “work force”!

Admittedly,  it is critical to prepare our students for their futures, but are we willing to sacrifice today’s victory in the name of preparation? I can’t count how many variations of this statement I have heard from teachers: “They can’t (insert prepare longer for a test, turn in an assignment late, have optional homework) because they won’t be able to handle it when it really gets tough in (insert middle/high school, college, etc).” This argument is fallacious for several reasons, the first of which is developmental. If students are in high school, they are not in college yet. They do not have the same skill set, maturity level, flexible schedule, etc. as a college student. Moreover, it’s not even a true statement. We all know that leniency and workload of any class varies per teacher, and further, that as adults we are rarely placed in a comparably inflexible environment as most traditional schools, at least not at the highest professional levels to which we hope our students aspire. 

But, I digress. I don’t really have an issue with tomorrow’s preparation until it encroaches on today’s success. And by success, I mean the ability of a child to recognize value in a learning exchange and seize it, to recognize his or her own talent and capitalize on it, and to realize they have their teacher on their side. These are the successes that ultimately build our future successes. Even in our work lives, we work harder when we feel connected to people and believe that our talents are maximizing our success. We want to do more of what we think we are good at and have the potential of being great at. If my only measure of being a decent writer was whether I may be able to write the “next American classic”, I would never pen a blog. Someone, at some point, liked only one sentence, one essay I wrote and it stuck. If a child is continuously inundated with messages about measuring up to the next level, when does he or she get to enjoy the comforts of now?

Although I missed tonight’s #edchat, I caught the archive on 21st century skills development, and my favorite post of the night was offered by @johntspencer who wrote, “I’m less interested in ‘21st century’ than timeless and enduring.” You know what is timeless and enduring? Connection, to others and to one’s own potential as they augment with time. At the risk of sounding hopelessly Kumbaya, I will end with my daily source of inspiration when I feel daunted by tomorrow’s demands. There is a wonderful song by the Dave Matthews Band called “Everyday”, the lyrics of which serve as the right call to action with my students each day. “Pick me up, oh, from the bottom; Up to the top, love, everyday.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

When Technology Fails and We Succeed

I have come to realize that learning about new technologies and using them are two different things. Since my last post, I have experienced a couple learn-by-doing moments that I feel would be helpful to share.

On our Facebook Faculty Group Wall, a teacher friend shared yesterday’s NY Times article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  which developed into a discussion thread of unanimous agreement. In the spirit of that, let’s talk about my wonderful failures of the past couple weeks. In an attempt to have a live discussion, I set up both a faculty meeting, and subsequently a class presentation, through I have the free version of service, but I was hoping to lead a discussion very similar to those I have experienced through Blackboard or Illuminate...sans the cost. I guess you get what you pay for in this case because while I was able to load the presentations successfully for both meetings, some of my staff members had a hard time accessing the meeting room and talking/listening became a problem. Nevertheless, I thought I had figured out the user errors on my part and how to better run it when I presented a lesson with my students.

I suppose it would be an accurate statement to say that the lesson proved relatively chaotic and ultimately ineffective as a whole-group activity. I cannot attribute this to the software because I am sure that somewhere in the product description of “free service” it indicates that there is a limit on how many attendees can enter a room, but what transpired was in retrospect rather comical in a way. I loaded a simple power point on outlining for my composition class and invited the students into the room. They got in; great success! Except that as the number exceeded 10, the kids already in the room lost their space, getting booted out. It did take us a good ten minutes to figure this out, and naturally, it was the students who put the variables are so brilliant.

Aside from minor setbacks of lost time and the necessity of assuaging any student and parent frustrations resulting from the confusing class session, this failure generated much growth. I conferenced individually with the students, who still did view the presentation and successfully complete the outline in spite of the failed meeting. My students, despite some being convinced they could not succeed in this type of environment, all rose to the problem-solving challenge and collaborated to answer questions from those who could not comprehend the task solely based on the presentation. It was messy, but the work produced then and subsequently has been impressive. This experience also taught me an important thing about the online environment: whole class instruction is exactly contrary to the beauty of the open flow classroom. The flipped model combined with the ability to deliver instruction on an individual student level when they are ready to receive it is actually attainable in this structure because it is forced. I have also realized that I can effectively use small group conferencing through Vyew which seems to do well when there are not too many competing voices in the room. Instead of trying to lecture to the students all at once, if I have something to say, or just want to show them the Hudson River, I post a video for them like this one.

My second failure was small and impacted only myself but worth sharing. There have been multiple mentions of Glogster and QR Codes in recent blogs and conference presentations, so I thought I would put together a project where students created multimedia Glogs to share various elements of our school’s history and its programs, which could then be linked to QR Codes to put up around the school for families to scan during admission tours and to give out at community events for those interested in learning about our school. I spend more than a few hours creating a sample Glog and screencast for my students only to link the QR code, scan it with my iPhone...and bring up NOTHING! Admittedly, I should have realized beforehand that this would be a problem, and it might have registered just a split second before the loading of the page failed, but in the end, the Adobe/Apple stalemate imploded my project. And yet, from this emerged some new collaboration through Twitter from fellow teachers who introduced me to which does not run on Flash. My students took to it right away, so quickly in fact, that they never really watched the presentation on it and nevertheless finished, in some cases, days before the project was due. Check out this one on our Dance Program.

I cannot say for certain whether I wish the conference had gone smoothly or that my QR/Glog mash-up project had mashed harmoniously because I really do believe the hackneyed-but-not-too-often-practiced sentiment that failure is not only acceptable but critical to our success. It truly depends on what is at stake and the nature of the failure. The only inexcusable failure, in this case, would have been a student feeling completely disconnected or incapable of success. As it stands at the end of the project, all my students and I learned more through navigating our obstacles in order to still reach a summit together. Nothing was lost...not even time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Our School (Grandview) + Bucky Dent Baseball Academy in the news!

News Channel 5 Covers The Partnership

In this interview, Gil expresses his gratitude for having Grandview as an academic partner for some of Bucky Dent's rising baseball stars. We are equally grateful to have such wonderful kids in our classes! Though the boys were selected for the Academy because of their baseball talents, it seems that the Bucky Dent crew was also scouting for character. Even though they can't play baseball for Grandview, they are certainly part of the GPS team, and we will be cheering them on to their many successes in the classroom and on the field!

Facebook Meets Face-to-Face, Week 1

This summer, we made a decision not simply to open social media sites like Facebook and Twitter but to essentially hijack them as learning spaces. Because this is such a hot topic, I've decided to chronical it as the year goes on in a weekly blog entitled "Facebook Meets Face-to-Face". Here's a look into the first week of school at Grandview!

Setting Up: We set boundaries to limit FB use to upper school students in order to be ethically compliant with age requirements. We are also looking to use Google+, especially for hangouts in our blended learning classes (called Flex classes), but when school opened, the age requirement was 18. Now that it is 13, we will look to use this as students settle into a groove. We've learned that too much, too fast can be overwhelming, and our students are still trying to get comfy in the new spaces. We set up Facebook pages for many of our high school classes using the Groups feature. This feature allows for collaboration between people who are not Facebook "friends", something which was key to us as our teachers are not "friends" with our students. Instead of Facebook or Google+, we are using Edmodo for middle school and lower school. Because I teach one middle and one upper school class, I use both as a teacher, and each has its advantages/disadvantages. We also set up Collaborize Classroom and Edublogs depending on the blogging needs to accompany the interaction on Facebook and Edmodo. Some classes are also using Glogster.

Tech Boot Camp: Last year, when we implemented Google Apps, we set aside one day as Academic Boot Camp to train the students on the use of these tools. This year, in addition to more training on these tools, the students attended workshops on responsible use of social media and collaborated in drafting responsible use agreements. They set up their Edmodo accounts, Collaborize Classroom accounts, and joined the appropriate Facebook groups.

Flex Class Flow: Our first flex classes met last week. These classes are blended face-to-face and online classes for seniors. Students are expected to attend on seminar and workshop days in person but can work at their own pace and attend online chats from home on other days, coming into school a little later on those days to attend their traditional classes. On average, the classes are meeting once or twice face-to-face or through video chat (in my case since I live in New York and my students are in Florida). Facebook has proven incredibly helpful in these classes because the teachers can post the assignments for the day or links. I create a video for my students on flex days and then also post the necessary explanations below it. One other teacher (Sam Berey) and I are using this model and both jump online to help students through video chat, IM, and FB chat if they run into issues. Students can choose to come into campus and work in a lab space for additional support.

Lessons Learned Week 1: My week taught me that students are not used to reading directions, something I knew, but my assumption was that if they could not ask questions face-to-face, they would read the directions. This was a false assumption, and instead, many students just asked each other and remained collectively confused. Or, they scrambled online to ask for clarification through chat or video conference before reading the assignment. Next year, I will spend some time in the beginning of the year practicing taking written information, processing it, and turning it into pointed questions for further guidance. On a positive note, this platform is really forcing students to learn the 21st century skill sets of communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. There is a lot of learning through action. I've also realized that I need to give shorter assignments and only one at a time. At first, I was giving a list of tasks, and this proved confusing and overwhelming for my students.

Looking Ahead: I am so excited for this year! I have to say that one thing I have noticed right away is a rise in connectivity to my classes and throughout the school. The downside is setting boundaries so that students don't always expect an immediate response, but the upside is we can see students sharing and communicating about important topics way beyond the classroom walls. Further, many kids who are normally on the fringe of participation or disengaged feel more comfortable or excited about participating online.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I've Decided to Say "Thank you"

I wonder what would happen if we ended each class with the statement, “Thank you for sharing your learning with me today.”

I went to a class last night at my gym, and it was packed as usual...a mix of sweaty people of all ages and walks of life coming together to make sweat stew while jamming to 90s pop. As usual, I loved every cheesy minute of it, and at the end of the class, I had a realization. Our instructor said “thank you” like he does every week at the end of class, and for the first time, I had more than appreciation for this act. I thought about all the classes I attend, from Yoga Sundays to Cardio Kickboxing Thursdays, and it suddenly occurred to me that all of them have this in common. At the end of every class, the instructor says “thank you” and we as students all say “thank you” in return.

Suddenly, I became fixated on understanding more about this expression of mutual gratitude. It is definitely ingrained in the gym culture, and I believe it results from the teacher-student exchange formula unique to the setting. The life of the class is dependent on the choice of participants. We only choose to attend if we feel confident about our potential to succeed, comfortable and accepted if we have to slightly alter the class to suit our abilities/needs, appreciated, and fantastic when we leave...all this besides willingly entering it to work our tails off! It started me thinking, what if schools worked like this? What if students voluntarily selected classes to attend during the week based on learning goals? What if our classes were cancelled if not well-attended?

Now, I realize that this is probably not possible, at least not something I can wrap my head around fully right now, but the exchange concept is transferable. For as little control students actually have over what classes they take, they certainly can exert a lot of control over how they attend them. They make choices each day. Will they gift us with their attention, effort, meaningful contribution, respect, gratitude? I think it really depends on what we are giving them. I honestly struggle, like most teachers, to bring high levels of engagement and relevance to my students on a daily basis. Am I sometimes boring? Yes. Do my students sometime leave with less than I’d like them to? Yes. But, I made a decision yesterday after that class to never let them leave without knowing that I am grateful for whatever they could give that day. Not just because I think that it will ultimately lead to more gifts from them (because I do) but also because despite all the frustrations and noise of each day, I am grateful. What a wonderful job I have, and I every day this year, I’m just going to make sure my kids know that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Differentiating Collaboration Outside Our Comfort "Circles"

Mirror Post ASCDEdge

As I’ve become more engaged in the PLNs I’ve developed on Twitter, ASCDEdge, Facebook, 21st Century Teacher, and more recently Google+, I have allowed myself to enjoy an inflated notion of intellectual communion and concordance. I suppose it’s been very easy to find like-minded educators who agree that social media has a place in the learning environment; that mobile devices can transform a class; that coaching is the improved mode of teaching; that project-based or experience based learning is more engaging and enriching than teacher-centered, lecture-based (“traditional” instruction); and that blended learning is a now-not later, us-not them experience for the majority of students. In essence, it has been very easy to find people who agree with me...but I guess that isn’t really the point of leadership.

When I posted “Let There be Facebook” a couple weeks ago, I was able to see the clear divide between my PLNs online and on-site. The comments and feedback from my blog through ASCDEdge and its Facebook page, and the other networks through which it was shared, were positive and supportive. Contrarily, when I shared it on our faculty FB wall, I watched as comment upon comment was posted reflecting the polar view point. It was excellent feedback as it allowed me a genuine and very necessary moment of reflection. Was I frustrated? Yes. However, in moments of frustration, we grow and hopefully stretch ourselves to see the other perspectives and hopefully learn to compromise or to at least assuage anxieties over changes imposed upon others; after all, we cannot always agree--or even ever perhaps!

I had a similar experience this weekend as a thread developed on a teacher listserv to which I subscribe on “technology in the classroom”. What began as a discussion/debate of online AP testing quickly turned acrimonious as contributors camped out in opposing corners proclaiming the value of various forms of technology or denouncing it completely as a menacing adversary to everything we hold sacred. I don’t think I need to state which camp I was in, and I did contribute and become incredibly frustrated as message after message was taken out of context and misconstrued, but towards the end, I really had to step back and send a note of gratitude for the rich and wonderfully diverse community of spirited and knowledgeable educators who shared their perspectives. It also made me realize that these communities of teachers who don’t all agree with me, in fact those in which I represent the minority, are exactly those I must engage in to maintain the balance of viewpoints and to fulfill my responsibility as a leader.    

Recently, a friend of mine said jokingly “Wouldn’t it be easy if you could work with everyone who ‘gets it’?” Naturally I said “yes!” but in reality, that isn’t what I want. I’m very grateful for my PLNs for the never-ending, enriching stream of resources they provide as well as the comfort they offer in times of doubt. However, as a leader, I realize that even if in some moments I get to be  “right” (to borrow from a recent ASCDEdge post by Walter Mackenzie), it will take a differentiated approach to working with others in order to effect positive change. In the same post, Walter challenges us with this sentiment, “Ask yourself this: what is a good working definition of what is ‘right’? While there’s comfort in consensus, isn’t the determinant in what is right and true found in outcomes?”  This took me back to a recent conversation I had with another educator who suggested that all educational leaders must learn to differentiate their collaboration with others in the same way we expect teachers to do so with students, so that while the focus is on the shared outcome, the approach and path varies.

Of course, the question of outcome is not always easy to define, or to put it another way, it is often lost among the cacophony of competing agendas. In its simplest form, it should be to foster a multifaceted growth of our students. As often as I denounce lecturing, I can think back to my favorite teacher from high school who did little else but still managed to spark an intense curiosity in us and always left us hungry for more. I can concede that there are people whose talent in reaching an audience and conveying a point exceeds normal constraints on attention (Sir Ken Robinson is most certainly one). I don’t think I could argue against this form of instruction if every time I walked by a classroom, the students were engaged, listening, and participating in a follow-up discussion with enthusiasm and relevance. However, when this is not the case, and students are left checked-out on the fringe of learning because we refuse to bend our wills to captivate their interest, then I cannot concede that lecturing or any other form of one-way, two-dimensional instruction is acceptable.

What is truly the most frustrating is to see several people simply opt out of the transformational conversations taking place, and this will be my focus outside my comfort “circles” simply engage people in the conversations, to challenge others and myself to discuss the issues, and to help set a differentiated path to our shared goal. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Backlit? Color? B &W? The real question for educators should be: what can I read on it?

Interesting comparison of eReaders, but the big question is, when are textbook publishers going to open up the etext market in a compatible way? My prediction is...too late to matter.  Free, open source textbooks like the Flexbooks ("mashable" and all!) will soon completely disrupt the textbook market, and the big publishers, who have essentially ignored the market demand, will be left scrambling to offer $10 a pop text downloads. This may also cause a little friction as teachers who have long been enamored with their specific text series will have to let go and take up the new tools of open source, but who can really argue against innovative, standards-aligned, and FREE?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Blended Learning Environments-A Welcomed "Disruption"

The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, by Michael B. Horn & Heather Staker

I came to this article with baggage. As someone who has taken online courses, mentored students through them, and overseen the implementation of blended learning environments, I have witnessed the experience from all perspectives. I should say, almost all perspectives.

As a student, I realized that not all online environments are the same. Some are much more interactive and communication reliant than others. I learned that if you write too much (as I always do), fewer people in your class will comment on your posts! I also learned that online courses sometimes mean reading, writing, writing, writing, and multiple choice testing...BORING! One common thread with all the online courses I took was more work, period.

As a mentor, I gained insight regarding the type of learner who can succeed in an online environment. I "mentored" some students who asked maybe one question through the process, say, where to find a certain link or how to cite something properly. They were empowered by their own control over pacing and the checklist style of objectives. These students gained a high sense of independence and accomplishment; they were the perfect match. Others, however, clearly missed talking. They are the auditory and social learners who make contact with the idea when they make eye contact with someone in a discussion or who associate knowledge with interpersonal exchanges. These students were not the perfect match, but if they had a face-to-face mentor, or if the virtual discussion forum was robust, they too could succeed. Finally, there were those who just got lost in the intangibles. They had a hard time with the open structured pacing and an even more difficult time with the multiple layers of the experience. Turning in things meant more than bringing something to class. It required a process, and sometimes the process was difficult for them to start.

As an administrator, I have learned to carefully guard the school's mission in integrating a blended environment. It has proven nearly impossible to have unified understanding of a blended structure. Some students embrace it while some "hate" it; some constituents are excited while others are skeptical and believe a blended environment is a bridge to "replacing the real teachers". There is always an implementation dip, so weathering the change and listening to what works and does not work about the blend of virtual/traditional environment is essential.

The one perspective I have not gained through all this is that of the teacher as I have never had this type of change impact my own classroom. I can imagine it must be uncomfortable, and that trust in the administrative team would be a prerequisite to success. The article states that blended learning "disrupts" the flow of the traditional classroom by transforming "the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America's schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive" and I could not agree more. What "teaching" looks like from this point of view will be defined by those who can similarly transform to the role of coach, experience designer, and facilitator.

Chances are we can all think back to the great teacher who changed the way we learned or influenced our interests. As educators, we firmly believe in the power of this. The teacher who can still connect with students without being the "sage on the stage" will become the new Teacher of the Year. If blended environments help us on our way to this end, then I am sure we will continue to see the increasing impact of this "disruption".

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"There's an App for That!"

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the words, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," she could not have imagined that one day millions may apply this sentiment in pondering their utter adoration of a little electronic gadget. I have never met an iPhone or iPad owner who had anything less than complete and unconditional love for it, nor any who could not ramble on about their favorite Apps quicker than making a list of admirable qualities in their loved ones (try it-it's true!). So, here's my quick list of fav Apps, plus a couple links to other App-lover education-specific lists.
  • Maps: Where would I be without my all-in-one self and destination locator? I never have to know exactly where I am headed until the moment before I walk out the door...brilliant.-standard, free; Also worth mentioning if you live in NYC is the NYC KickMap subway map (kick lite version is free and sufficient for navigating the underground) Educational Application: How many kids in Boca Raton don't know that the beach is East? Teaching kids to plan trips and navigate N,S,E,W before they learn to drive or have to travel the subways on their own is critical to keeping them safe.
  • Google Apps: access to my life on the go, enough said. -free Educational Application: Read, edit docs, check your email, plan your due dates...bring some level of organization to the chaos of teen life!
  • Good Reads: Social networking for book nerds (that's me!). I can plan my reading, see what other people are reading, form groups, discuss, and even read from full e-texts on my phone (often for free)! -free  Educational Application: Lit circles, virtual book clubs, blogs
  • Eucalyptus: Classics on the go in full text library. I bought this one before I was reading heavily on Kindle (which offers most classic titles for free), and thousands of literary and nonfiction classics can be downloaded into a personal library. You can annotate, highlight, modify the text color, size, and lighting...and even flip rather than slide pages (I found this thrilling).-9.99
  • Shakespeare: Let's face it, how many times have you been sitting on a train uptown or in a car and really needed to access some muse from the old bard? -free Educational Application: really?
  • Kindle: Yes, I do have four ways to read on my phone! Does this surprise anyone? This is now my go-to for reading because I can pick up right where I left off in my actual Kindle, and I love the shared notes feature. I can highlight, take notes, and even publish my notes. I've thoughtfully spared my FB friends this experience though as I'm inclined to highlight my favorite quotes frequently and might flood the news feed with them if I posted everything. Thankfully my daughter is as big a book nerd and we swap quotes from our Kindles. -free (just pay for the actual books, but many classics are f-r-e-e)
  • PS Express: I love posting pics on the go to FB, but touching them up with this lite version of photoshop is so much fun. -free Educational Application: mini projects done and posted in one class period
  • Wikipanion: All the wikipedia haters out there will be remiss to discover that I am a wikipedia fan. More on this topic in my next blog, but in the meantime, wiki lovers can rejoice in the availability of this easy-search wiki friend. -free Educational Application: research, even if you are not a proponent for the inclusion of wikipedia as a valid resource, it's certainly a good place for idea finding and thesis formation, and it contains a list of links to other, more "valid" sources
  • NPR News & Pandora: combined to represent my serious side and my fun side. Free news and free music. Educational Application: social studies class warm-up; current events
  • Training Peaks: Helps me chart my fitness and reminds me of my goals each day. -free Educational Application: PE
  • Fluid, DoodleBuddy, and Emoji Free: Absolutely pointless apps which children love to play with when they grab my iphone...though I have to admit they are remarkably captivating for me too when I'm in need of a mindless activity to release some stress. -free Educational Application: well...kill time after a test?
So there you have it, my (abbreviated) list of reasons I love my iphone aside from all its other wonders. The fact that I can't make a call with it right now without the call dropping, well, that's irrelevant isn't it?

Check out the Top 10 Apps as reported by Education Weekly here and a teacher-run wiki with a huge list of education-specific Apps

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Return to Sender -- THE Journal

Return to Sender -- THE Journal

From the article, "Work readiness is no longer just about the three R's; now it's also about turning information into knowledge through Web searching and vetting. It's about developing effective multimedia presentations. It's about seamlessly using digital tools to collaborate and problem-solve."

The phrase "21st Century Skills" is ubiquitous in education speak right now, but the bridge to the effective development of this skill set continues to evade educators. Gordon's article points to technology as a critical tool in fostering creative, multifaceted, interactive, and collaborative problem-solving skills, but while the necessity of technology is unequivocal, technology--even the best technology--is not enough to render 21st century competency.

In order to fully actualize the new picture of a graduate, other paradigm shifts must take place. As Gordon's article implies, the focus must shift from content to skill in the assessment of student achievement. Measuring what our students can do rather than what they know is far more complicated than providing tech tools. It means providing creative, collaborative, and open-ended environments; it means putting the problem ahead of the content to allow for diagnosis and discovery; and it means developing a different system of assessment. Even while the the recently published Core Common State Standards focus more heavily on skills than content, states are already at work creating 2D standardized tests to measure what are in fact 3D competencies.

An even more daunting opponent to reform is the antiquated higher education model which is proliferated by our continued reliance on 2D forms of student assessment for college acceptance and our continued reliance on school brand for job placement. While the collective higher education voice has been strong in pronouncing a problem with the high school "product"--pointing out the dearth in critical-thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills among the ranks of new students at even the most illustrious universities--there have been mere whispers of admissions reform at these same universities. As long as the universities who set the pinnacle standard of achievement continue to focus on traditional, 20th century skills, the prioritization of these skills will preclude the full integration of 21st century skills. Similarly, if as Gordon's title implies, employers of college graduates are inclined to "return" the products of our current college system due to inadequate skills mastery, then these same organizations should not look to the traditionally hallmarked names of universities as the sole measure of the quality and depth of an applicant's skills.

To successfully effect change, we need to redefine accountability for educational reform. It cannot rest solely with educators and their ability to provide technological resources for students or even their ability to develop the types of learning environments conducive to 21st century skill development. It must be shared with university admission boards and workforce constituents who have authentic power to not just sanction but demand the change by themselves changing the measure of success at the finish line of each "race".

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Redefining Preparatory, an article written for the Grandview Preparatory School community

Redefining “Preparatory”
By: Tiffany Della Vedova, Academic Dean
October 6, 2010

When we opened our doors a little over a decade ago, it was with a specific vision. Our founders, Gene and Carolyn Ehlers, sought to create a learning environment which would uniquely engage students on an individual level by synthesizing the traditional with the innovative. They imagined that preparing a student for college did not have one set track. They also had the foresight to know that the preparation necessary for success in college and beyond would evolve quickly with the changing world. Even still, none of us knew in the year 1997 just how quickly the birth of new technologies would affect the future of our schools and the future and present lives of our children.

We find ourselves today having to look at the world through the crystal ball of prediction, and speculate from trends and the consensus of experts exactly what our children will need to know in order to succeed at the highest level in college and beyond. To redefine readiness each year for our students, we revert back to the vision of our founders, marrying the conventional with the revolutionary. Further, when we speak of academic readiness, it is never mutually exclusive to character growth. The combination of these values and skills is evident in our school creed and in each lesson taught in the classroom.

The value of connection is ubiquitous within our community. The beginning of our creed, “Together we build our future” takes on many meanings. In Advisory, our students learn the importance of having a mentor as they experience the process as a mentee. This helps them come to understand their own role as mentors to the younger students at Grandview, and in some cases to each other, as they engage in peer tutoring and take on leadership roles within the school. Together also means a partnership between the teacher and the student, the home and the school. We seek to connect our students’ life experiences with their classroom ones, individualizing their learning paths by tapping into their viewpoints and interests. Likewise, we endeavor to engage parents in the learning process, often assigning “home learning” which involves family discussion or parental feedback.

This year, we have also taken the concept of connection a step further, helping our students to see online networking and collaboration in an academic light rather than a purely social one. Through the implementation of Google Apps in our school, our middle and upper school students now receive and submit work electronically, develop their own online learning portfolios, and collaborate in real time on live, shared documents. A Forbes magazine blog earlier this year highlighted the rising trend in online collaboration, citing a Gartner prediction that online meeting and collaboration will replace 2.1 million airline seats per year for business travel by 2012. The same article revealed the creative ways in which large companies such as Accenture and Proctor & Gamble are using online technologies, ranging from video conferencing to simulated product launches. We strongly feel that adding online collaboration to our definition of preparation will only give Grandview graduates an advantage heading into the next stage of their lives with such practices on the rise.

Understanding the way we connect with each other and our learning helps our students make important decisions as they connect the choice to the outcome, whether that decision be which club to join or when to sign off Facebook and take notes in class. Part of our mission is to provide choice and to empower students to make choices each day, in each moment, and to understand the responsibility associated with each decision along with the outcomes of even the smallest ones. At the high school level, our students are reading the book Blink which explores the decisions we make on instinct and in the span of two seconds. When we recite our creed, we state that we understand that “choice is responsibility” and that “we must choose wisely”. The truth is that sometimes in life, we have to make choices quickly and at other times, we have the luxury of time and research, but what we hope to impress upon our students is the need to think about these choices and to use the tools available to make them and understand why we are making them. Subsequently, instead of structuring their every move by preventing choice, we place them in situations to use their best judgment thereby fostering this essential skill.

In the classroom, we can see evidence of this focus through differentiated instruction methods in which students have some level of choice in the way they receive and demonstrate mastery of learning. When faced with the choice of whether to make a model or a video, we hope that students will think about how they learn best and decide which is the path best suited for their success.  Students also learn to experiment with different methods of studying. Research tells us that variation in method and location of studying are conducive to higher success on tests. In one study, students who studied the same material twice in the same setting performed poorer on a test than students who studied the same material twice in different settings. Brain researchers speculate that this is a result of our brain forming different associations between the material and the learning environment to help us remember; therefore, the more associations built the higher the learning outcome (Carey, 2010). This means that the old method of mandating a student sit at the kitchen table until finishing their work each day may get the work done, but may hinder deeper absorption of the material. Instead, maybe students learns that by associating vocabulary with dance moves or the times tables with a rap beat, it becomes easier to remember. The critical element is creative experimentation and individual ownership over the process as our students get to know themselves as learners.

In a video talk which has since gone viral, Sir Kenneth Robinson, renowned creativity specialist, accuses schools of “killing creativity”. Of the various reasons parents choose Grandview, one of the more important is the commitment to the creative growth of our children. While several schools at the local and national level have cut Arts programming, we have continued to add courses to our visual and performing arts curriculum at all levels. The July 2010 Newsweek report on “The Creativity Crisis” exposes the prevalence of such cuts at the national level along with the sacrifice of creativity-centered learning to test prep in the midst of our test-centered, achievement-oriented educational climate. Authors Bronson and Merryman reference our national fixation to compete with China and quote a faculty member of a major Chinese university as saying, “You are racing toward our old model [of skill and drill]. But we are racing toward your model, as fast as we can.” IBM recently identified creativity as the number one indicator for leadership, and it is easy to understand why…because the one thing that has yet to be outsourced is American ingenuity and creativity. And we believe it begins in the classroom, where students learn to comprehend and synthesize with freedom and appreciation for divergent approaches.

Regardless of the changes surrounding our children, we are confident that as they accumulate the skills we are providing them, they will move forth with the readiness to succeed in a triumphant way. The final measure of this success will not be found in test scores or grades, but in their confidence and sense of self. For this, we turn to each other as a reminder to fill them with purpose and lift them up each day. Excelsior ad Augusta, ever upward to honor!  

Referenced Works:
Bronson, P. and Merryman, A. (2010, July 10). The Creativity Crisis. Newsweek. Retrieved from
Carey, B. (2010, September 7). Forget what you know about good study habits. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Mitra, S. (2010, January 29). CIO priority: virtual collaboration. Forbes. Retrieved from
Robinson, Sir K. (2006). Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity. TED Talks. Retieved from