Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Preparing Students for Middle School?

Assemblies are pretty common in our school. We have everything from musical assemblies to book presentations to holiday celebrations. I have always been someone who spends time before assemblies talking to the students about how to behave. Be sure you clap, never boo. Pay attention and show the presenter that you are interested and listening. Be polite and respectful to all those around you. And, for the most part, the students are great audience members.

Today, our assembly was a science assembly. It was loud and exciting. The presenter was enthusiastic and engaging. And the students were totally enthralled by every minute. But I observed something interesting with them.

You see, in our classroom, Christine and I work to make sure that all of our students know how to be active learners. They are expected to do what they need to do in order to stay focused, be productive, and remain engaged. That means that they sometimes move around the room. Sometimes they grab a laptop in the middle of a lesson. Sometimes they get reference books or a Franklin Speller. There are fidget toys and highlighters, a Relaxation Station and a water fountain. Whatever they need to do to learn, they do. Without asking. Without disturbing everyone else. Without making a scene.

So back to the assembly. There we are, sitting in the gym with the rest of the fourth and fifth graders. We got into the room last so we were sitting in the back. And once the assembly began, the children began to take care of themselves. Some of them moved to the very back and knelt so they could see. Some students actually stood in the back of the room. Two students were video taping the whole assembly so they were moving around the edge of the room throughout the presentation. One student ran back to the room for his glasses. Two students started a very quiet conversation about energy while they were learning. I am sitting behind all of the students watching. And I am feeling proud. They are engaged. They are excited. They are learning. And they are doing what they need to do without disturbing the other students or the presenter. And then I saw the shocked faces of the other teachers in the room. And I realized that our students no longer fit into the "school mold."

We have gotten our students to be active learners. We have taught them the importance of advocating for their education. But now we are going to send them off to middle school where there might be teachers who find their behavior insubordinate. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. Do we stop teaching them to learn, regardless of what it takes? Do we spend the rest of the year teaching them to fit back into the "school mold"? Or do we just hope that they can teach their teachers next year that, just because they are standing in the back of the room or playing with a fidget toy, does not mean they are not learning? What do you think?

Images: 'Guess the shape'

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Celebration of Teaching and Learning

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a local tri-state area conference called The Celebration of Teaching and Learning. This conference, which takes place in Manhattan, is run by our local PBS station, Channel 13/WNET, WLIW21. It has major sponsorship in Chase, National Education Association, New York State United Teachers, SMART Technologies, and United Federation of Teachers. They describe themselves this way:

"What is the Celebration of Teaching & Learning? One prominent educator has dubbed it the “World’s Fair of Education.” We try to make it the place where the best thinkers and practitioners come together to play a role in shaping the future of schools. From that perspective, then, the Celebration is where knowledge meets inspiration."

This is my third year attending. In past years I have had the honor of hearing Al Gore, Tim Russert, Margaret Spelling, Majora Carter, Jean Michel Cousteau, and Jane Goodall, to name a few. I have also learned from Will Richardson, Alan November, David Warlick, and many other people from the educational technology arena.

So this year I was quite excited to attend. And to add to my enthusiasm, I was able to share the conference with Christine Southard, Karen Janowski, Ann Oro, and some other school colleagues. Always makes a conference more exciting to share.

Here are some of my highlights from the conference.

The Electric Company:
It's back and it's catchy. While the cast entertained us, a little girl of about 9 sat in front of us singing all the songs and bopping to the music. It obviously reached her.

Marco Torres:
"Quit, Complain or Innovate"
Marco showed us how using GarageBand to create songs can visually demonstrate fractions to the students. I really must get a Mac for my classroom.

Favorite ideas:

  • "The student is either the recipient of information or the producer of information. Let's make them the producers."
  • "Video is a tool for liberation."
  • "Ask yourself, 'What is an educated person?' and strive to teach to that."
  • "Nouns vs. Verbs - The Thing vs. The Purpose of the Thing - Teach Verbs not Nouns"

Sir Kenneth Robinson
"How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything"
At our second plenary session, Sir Kenneth blew me away. He has such an entertaining way of delivering a message. If you haven't seen his TedTalk yet, you must. This speech hit me so hard we did our Conversations show all about it this week. Look for it on

Favorite Ideas:

  • "Schools are killing creativity."
  • "Start making teaching creativity most important."
  • "Our students use technology differently than we do and it's time to start understanding how." (The example he gave for this was wearing a watch. Children don't wear watches because the time is all around them - phones, IPods, tv, computers, etc.)

Governer David Patterson
He was a last minute addition to the schedule. His speech was given totally from memory.

Temple Grandin
"Developing Strengths and Abilities in People on the Autism Spectrum"

Favorite Ideas

  • "Use the obsession children with autism have and expand that obsession to expand their horizons." (The example she gave was take an obsession with drawing horses and expand it to drawing the barn and the other animals and...)
  • "There needs to be much more emphasis on developing a child's area of strength instead of just hammering away at the deficits."

Danica McKellar
Yes, seeing Winnie Cooper from the Wonder Years was exciting. But she has written math resource books aimed at middle school girls and she has a powerful message for them. Check out Math Doesn't Suck and Kiss My Math.

Favorite Ideas:

  • "Smart is sexy."
  • "One teacher is all it takes to turn a child around."
  • "We don't see beautiful girls as math experts. We need to be aware of our stereotypes of the math nerd in order to bring girls into the math world."

Bill Gates, Sr.
He spoke about the need to equalize education.

Favorite Ideas:

  • "Prepare every child for college, even if they choose not to go."
  • "Bring collaboration into the school setting so teachers and administrators can work together to help each child succeed."

Alan Alda
He introduced his new PBS show, The Human Spark. This show asks the question, "What makes us human?" Follow Alan Alda as he asks experts in many fields this question.

Favorite Ideas:

  • "Be a learner in your classroom. Show the children you are interested in learning."
  • "Enjoy what you do."

Other Big Excitement from the Conference

  • I am a shameless fan of famous people. I didn't really know that about myself but I had two (yes two) conversations with Meredith Brokaw (Tom's wife). She's a lovely, gracious lady who willingly talked with me. I am still excited by that. I also spoke with Neil Shapiro, Danica McKellar, and Marco Torres. Be still my heart.
  • Christine and I got to spend time with Ann Oro (first time meeting f2f), Karen Janowksi, and Lucy Gray. Saturday was a great lunch.
  • Each plenary session started with an Adobe Youth Voices video. Love those videos.
  • Our students came on Saturday. We won The Chase Multimedia in the Classroom Award so they got tickets to come. They heard Temple Grandin, got their picture taken for the Google Blog, and were generally excited by the whole event. This was a day they will never forget.
  • I met some other twitter friends. I love meeting people face to face.

All in all, this conference was eye opening, reaffirming, exciting. I highly recommend it to all next year. Even though it is run by a NYS PBS station, it is open to everyone. In fact, we were told there were people from all 50 states of the United States and some provinces in Canada. Hopefully, I will see you there next year.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Transformation of a 21st Century Classroom

My co-teacher, Christine Southard, and I speak each day on the phone as we drive into work. We both have long commutes and use the time to plan, wake each other up, make to-do lists, and just talk. We often think we should be recording these conversations and creating podcasts. Over time, we have solved all the education problems, found motivators for every unmotivated child, and figured out what each administrator needs to do to create the perfect school environment. Of course, we then get to school and forget all our great ideas. Sigh.

But last week, I got so excited by one conversation we had that I was determined to blog about it so it could be saved for posterity. Or at least saved for longer than it takes to walk from my car to my classroom. So here is the great thinking.

Christine and I have worked together for over three years. But three years ago we really began the transformation of our classroom. It was three years ago that we learned about Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, rss feeds, and delicious. And it was then that we began to spread our wings. So how have we transformed?

The Beginning

At first, we were excited by the tools. We started a blog for no other reason than we thought it was a cool idea. There was no great plan to integrate this idea into our curriculum. We didn't consider even coordinating blogging with our writing lessons. It was a total extra. Ditto for other fun tools such as mixbook, gcast, and adding widgets to our site. We already had a website, thanks to our district. Now we could add...a clustrmap, podcasts, a voki, video! Let's have the students create avatars for their blogsite. Let's play around with... Well, you get the idea. Tools were fun. Tools were cool. Tools excited the students. But there was no learning involved.

The Middle
Year two began a move toward putting technology into our curriculum. So our class went something like this. Teach a unit - maybe geometry. Use our cool SmartBoard to liven up the lessons. Maybe add a BrainPop video or Discovery Streaming video to the unit. Then find a way to have the students use a fun tool, such as VoiceThread, to demonstrate their knowledge.

So in year two, the tool still came first. We learned about a new tool and thought about a lesson we could do to incorporate that tool into our curriculum. And as for our teaching, it was still very much teacher directed. Assessments were often project based assessments but the learning was all about us.

There were some positives, though. We learned about a huge amount of tools, built up our PLN, and even won some awards for our projects. We were proud of our accomplishments.

The Big Transformation

So if we were happy, why did anything change? First, let me tell you what started the conversation Christine and I were having. I pointed out that we really don't "teach" much anymore. And that, to a stranger coming into the room, it must look like we aren't doing anything. We both sit with our computers on most of the day. We sit at tables and have students come to us with their work, usually on a laptop or flash drive. While we wait for students to come to us, we are editing blogs, loading videos, adding podcasts to our site, updating website pages, and much more. Or we walk around and talk to groups of students, finding out what they are working on and where they might need some guidance. Or we're monitoring a live blog session. Rarely are we in front of the room talking. And rarely are the students in their seats all at the same time. A colleague recently said that every time she walks by, the students are at their computers working quietly. We laughed, saying we felt the class was a pretty noisy group. They love to talk with each other and we are just grateful that at least they are on topic when they are talking.

How did we get to this level? At some point, over the summer, we realized that we needed to step away from the front of the room. And that technology could help us do just that. We wanted to move from project based assessment to project based learning. So we planned lessons where we posted information for the students online. Videos, audio clips, websites, book lists, all available as needed. And we demonstrated a variety of tools the students could use to share their knowledge. And we (gasp) handed out our toys to the kids. We gave them our cameras, our digital recorders, the flipcam. And now they even use our laptops when editing material. This was huge. We lost control. And gained a class full of learners. We trusted them with the tools and they haven't let us down yet.

So here we are, nearing the end of year three. Feeling proud, still winning awards. I wonder what year four will bring to us.