Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's for the Kids

Seasons greetings to you and your loves ones.  Be thankful you have them and if you haven't told them lately how much you care about them, do it today!

Schools are very special places.  And what is it that makes them as unique as they are?  Undoubtedly, the answer has be children.  Kids, if you will.  Children make schools special places because they are all variables.  Nothing changes more year-to-year than the children that pass through the doors, walk the halls and enter into classrooms.  They can be simultaneously constants and variables.  But they should be the shameless focus of everything that drives a school.  They should be the reason teachers and staff get up in the morning and commute to schools around the world.

My school community is no different than yours.  Regardless of what else happens in our world, children pour into our building every morning full of emotions and energy.  Our job as educators is to provide them with a safe environment where they feel confident to learn.  Some days will be more challenging than others, just as some will be more rewarding that others.  But through it all, we need to maintain a focus on the most important part of our school; our students.

Below, I created a word cloud from President Obama's speech to members of Newtown, Connecticut on December 16 using Tagxedo, a free word cloud generator.   One of the reasons I think a word cloud is a valuable tool in the classroom is the alternate way for students to analyze writing, discuss theme and determine author's purpose.  It's a wonderful visual to accompany any writing assignment and allows children the ability to create something as unique as they are.  I chose to use the President's transcript for a couple reasons.  The circumstances surrounding the events from Sandy Hook Elementary touched the hearts of people around the world.  We all have some kind of connection to an elementary school and what happened in Newtown is unimaginable on so many levels.  The other reason I chose this transcript is because it shows very clearly the focus of his speech.  Look at the larger words in the middle of the shape.  Children, community, know, love, and help are some that stand out because they were repeated in the transcript.

Created from the transcript of President Obama's speech delivered to the community
in Newtown, Connecticut on Sunday, December 16, 2012.
The message I take from this post, and what initiated my desire to write, is the unwavering desire to engage children in learning that so many great educators possess.  Sometimes when schools and classrooms become hectic and seem chaotic we need a gentle reminder of why we teach.  It's not about the teacher, parents, administrators or content.  It's about and for the children we think about and work with every day.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Benefits of Learning Together

I'll admit that my most vivid learning experiences involved someone else: a teacher, friend, parent, sibling, teammate or other.  In fact, the more I think about my most valuable learning experiences, whether it be learning a specific skill or strategy in sport, acquiring/applying knowledge about a topic, or figuring out a complex problem, someone else was involved.  Other people have been so deeply involved in my learning that even to this day I need someone to confirm, deny or clarify an idea, answer, solution or personal experience.  Sometimes just talking out my understanding to any set of ears (whether they are listening or not) or sharing an experience is enough.  It's startling how much I've relied on other people to help my learning process... and I think I'm one of the most independent learners out there.  I mean, my most recent learning accomplishment is adapting to my new role as a student support specialist.  And never once did I think I could do it alone.

This tells me one of two things.  Either I am psychologically confused about what it means to be an independent learner or I am human and have come to accept the fact that human brains are social organs that thrive on social interaction for many things.  Learning is no exception.  So if as an adult, a professional, and lifelong learner I rely on others to help me learn, why would I expect students to learn alone?  I don't.  You shouldn't.  Teachers shouldn't.  In a growing, evolving world we should help our students learn and grow together.  We should want them to discover, share, analyze, debate and discuss their learning with their classmates, teachers and families.  But in order to do this, we need to help make their learning meaningful.

Here's an idea.  The next time you're attempting to teach a lesson or start a unit, tell your students what you expect them to learn.  State very clearly what is expected, even if it means showing them the "standards" or questions that need answers.  Then, ask them how they want to learn about it and demonstrate their understanding.  Be prepared, you need to have ideas, too!  I hear from fellow teachers all too often about the "standards" and what is expected from students.  My response is becoming the same.  Tell your students what they are expected to learn and be open to their ideas in how to learn about it.  Children have some pretty great ideas.  So do teachers.  Together, they have even better ideas.  Brainstorming should be commonplace in any learning environment and students should be encouraged and coached in thinking through their thoughts.  It is acceptable to let students think up ideas that have already happened or develop a project that you (as the more experienced learner) might have already done.  The idea here is empowering students to take ownership of their learning by engaging them first-hand in responsibility for what they should be learning and how it can be done.  We learn best by doing.  (And that doesn't mean "doing" a worksheet.) It would probably be a better idea to have the students make a worksheet from scratch than to fill-in the blanks on one given by a teacher.  Even then, children would be working together.

When we learn together we communicate thoughts, discuss perspectives and share understandings.  We create disagreements that force deeper thinking, we challenge ideas and encourage greater clarity.  The benefits of learning together are incomparable to those discovered alone.  Challenge your students, teachers and parents to learn with their children.  Don't give answers, force yourself to create shared learning opportunities for students everyday.  Collaborate with each other with the goal of creating something greater together.  A group of students learning with a teacher (and yes even a group of teachers learning with a lead-teacher)  has the potential for a great many things when they all work together.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Teaching Kids - Part 2

My new role at school has me spending a fair amount of time working with students on behavior; positive and negative behaviors.  As with anything I am asked to help with, the teacher in me takes over and I start brainstorming, researching and discussing strategies and ideas to implement when working with students; both positive and negative.

There are a few things I have noticed in the eight weeks of teaching a variety of students regarding behavior.  First, parents love to hear when their child has done something positive and aren't too thrilled when they hear something negative.  Not groundbreaking research, I understand.  But communications (phone calls, e-mail, quick chats) about specific positive interactions or behaviors are seemingly unexpected and help to build a more positive rapport with the child, family and teacher.  Then, when the phone calls, e-mails or chats about negative behavior comes, it's not the only interaction you have with the family and child.  For most of our students (80% or more) behavior is an afterthought.  But for that 20% (or less) behavior impacts everything they do.  Behavior impacts learning in all classes and subjects.  It impacts friendships, social experiences, and the community.  So what do we do with those kids?  Here's an idea, we teach behavior.  It's not another thing to teach, it's what we teach.  All children need to learn about things, behavior should be no exception.  Some children struggle with reading or math while others struggle with behavior.  Just like I, as a teacher, would focus my instruction on the needs of a student with a specific math skill, I now focus my instruction on the needs of a student for a specific behavior or strategy.

When working with individuals on behavior I begin by listening.  It's a simple start but I've found it helps to let children speak their mind.  Then, I restate what I'm hearing so I can clarify the information and attempt to understand the situation from the point of the child.  It never fails that I will hear multiple sides to every story but I have to do my best to find commonalities in what I'm hearing.  After I more clearly understand what the problem behavior is I talk with the child about working together.  I can do something to help the situation if the child can do something, too.  I want them to hear that I am there to help but they must understand that ultimately they have a responsibility to help their self.  And I always end behavior focused teaching/sessions by emphasizing how much I care about the student.  The "ethic of care" is a term I've heard and read about at length.  Today, in my Twitter feed I found a video clip of Fred Rodgers petitioning members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the ethic of care and value of dialogue between adults when discussing feelings.

It is powerful when children see, hear, and participate in the way adults work through problems that arise from various behaviors.  It is also incredibly powerful for a child to hear that adults take time to work through things and express care for one another.  Sometimes, it just takes a little extra time and effort to teach behavior but it sends a direct message to children that you care about them as individuals, their
behavior, and their success: positive and negative.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teaching Kids - Part 1

It's a simple concept that can get misconstrued in any number of ways by things that happen outside of the classroom. If you ask any educator, they will agree, the number one daily priority in schools should be teaching kids. It's impossible to argue with that concept if you believe in education. But, do you believe in the educational system? That is another question. If you've payed any attention to the news, you heard about the Chicago Teachers' Union strike that kept teachers and students out of classrooms for seven school days. It was clear for those seven days that 'teaching kids' was not the number one priority for educators or the educational system. The system AND educators (administration and teachers) failed their students.  It wasn't the students that caused the strike, it was the system and people who elected to work in education that failed.  If teaching kids is what's important, then teaching kids is what will happen.

No system is perfect, especially systems in education.  If you know of a 'perfect system', educational or other, then please comment on this post or e-mail me directly.  I'd love to hear how it was developed and how it self-monitors troubleshooting, problem solving, and maintenance.  I'd love to hear about a system by which school buildings work together for educational equity for ALL students and how teachers meet students' abilities at their level and help them progress and grow from that point on every single day.

The reality of education and learning is that it is a process.  It is messy.  It taxes human emotional, brain functions, physical limits, mental capacity and pushes the limits of understanding.  It's how education evolves. It's how we as humanity evolve.  It's how we grow.  And education is what happens when a teacher is present with students, working through things together and learning.  A teacher is the single most important factor in the success of students.  That will never change.  What has changed, however, is the role of the teacher and access to information.  The job description of a teacher today is incredibly different than that of a teacher in any other generation and so is the buffet of instructional tools and information available to teachers and students.  The constant remains the same--teachers and support staff building relationships and working together with children to help them grow.  That will always be part of the job description.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Heart of Learning

As the new school year approaches for my school district and community, I can't help but revisit the fundamental values of education.  At the heart of what we (parents, teachers, administrators) want our children to be able to do is learn, right?  We want desperately for our students to learn not only about academics and social behaviors but also about themselves as young citizens in our communities; local, national and global.  We want our children to learn concepts, skills, and behaviors in hopes that someday they will find their passion and be prepared for success.  We want our children to be happy, curious little humans that grow up to become engaged, knowledgeable citizens that make our world a better place.

I spent a day with our district leadership and parent leaders from (almost) all ten of our district schools to have an open discussion about priorities for our students.  The formal name for this event was parents and teachers talking together or PT3.  The forum was an opportunity for us to brainstorm priorities in student success, explore our thinking in open dialogue, and organize our values into thematic strands.  There were two questions we aimed to answer: How do we as a community define student success?  How do we as a community work together to ensure success for all students?  The initial brainstorms took place with educators and parents meeting in separate rooms and returning to a whole to share priorities.  To summarize the entire day into our shared priorities really gets at the heart of what we want for all our children and students.  We agreed that we define student success as children that are skilled thinkers and intrinsically motivated.  We agreed that we can work together as a community to ensure these priorities by establishing strong school/family partnerships and maintaining consistent standards and expectations for all children.  I'd like to think these are the priorities for many school communities around the globe.  These are of course ideals in an ever-changing, rapidly growing world.

But what was missing?  Student voice.  Teacher voice.  Or was it?  When a community possesses the same values, aims to achieve common goals, and works to ensure the success of all its members, do titles really matter?  Yes, learning is messy, very messy and the roles of teachers, administrators and parents can jumble up the whole process with a single misunderstanding or miscommunication.  But how powerful is the learning for our children when we all see the same vision, work toward the same goals, AND empower our students with skills and resources?  When we as educators embrace an open forum for communication with parents we enhance the learning process for all our children.  We help parents understand that teachers, REAL teachers, look at their children as more than test scores and standards.  Real teachers embrace their students by name and learn about who they are and what they want to become. Teaching happens when a child is ready to learn and most children become ready to learn when they trust the person they call teacher.  Everyone has a teacher they remember.  I bet you can think of one right now.  Did you trust them?  How did they go about earning your trust?  I can imagine there is any number of answers to these questions.  But I digressed.

Great educators, and great people, have a strong connection between their head and their heart.  They are able to connect their beliefs and values with action and conviction.  Children see that and learn from it, whether we realize it or not.  When we surround our students with great people who are motivated to engage and poised to inspire, incredible things can happen. I am excited for a new school year because the school and district I work in has given an opportunity for parents, teachers, and administrators to focus on what's really at the heart of learning--our children.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Does Elmo know the Common Core?

Summertime.  The word evokes so many thoughts and feelings, especially for those employed or involved in the academic realm.  For most elementary schools it means summer break!  But the reality is many educators spend their summers decompressing from the completed school and gearing up for the next one by attending summer conferences, workshops and learning online.  There are many trending topics in education this summer and arguably none seem more eminent than the relatively new Common Core State Standards.  Are standards really new anymore?  Learning standards and objectives have been at the center of education for my entire life, and the life of many veteran and retired educators.  So why do they change?  Why do administrators, teachers, parents and other educational stakeholders spend countless hours developing one set of "common standards" for every American student to demonstrate or meet?  Haven't we learned by now that all children are different and individuals like to be treated accordingly?!  Okay, let me step down from my tiny soap box of rhetorical questioning and offer a crazy idea; one that also requires every child to do something but not for the sake of meeting a standard, rather for the purpose of developing common language through all American children and families.

I propose the new American educational learning standards begin with Sesame Street.  Yes, that's right.  Those lovable (in the case of Elmo and Big Bird) or despicable (Oh, Oscar) characters are timeless and offer an incredible spectacle of real life scenarios through interpersonal, or inter-stuffed animal, relationships that teach children meaningful lessons about language skills, emotions, relationships, and everyday life.  Cable television changed the concept of literacy in a way much the same as the Internet did.  Information is delivered to us in various forms of media and it is important that we teach our children accordingly.  If every American child were exposed to episodes of Sesame Street before their first day of kindergarten, could you imagine the kinds of connections and applications that could arise for any child, in any classroom around the country?  Teachers could build off of characteristics of characters and learn how to express themselves.  Let me offer an example...

Oscar the Grouch is a notoriously grouchy character that is consistently ornery about something, often times the elation and happiness of his neighbors on the street.  By using Oscar's character disposition as the centerpiece of a primary/early childhood classroom lesson, children can work together to develop strategies about how to deal with other children that become grouchy or annoyed by things happening around them.  This lesson is greatly enhanced if every child already knows who Oscar is and the kind of behavior he regularly displays.  It helps children learn how to handle individuals in their life that act like Oscar.  I bet you can think of an Oscar-like friend or foe in your life.  (Watch a subtitled clip in the classroom and you've embedded a couple different teaching options for pre-primary and emerging readers, too.)  Alright, I've covered a simple primary lesson, but what about the intermediate grades?  Certainly Sesame Street is far too elementary for third, fourth and fifth graders.  Let's dig a little deeper.

Sesame Street is a continuous unfolding of character developments, interactions and scenarios, many possessing the traits of good writing, detailed dialogue, and meaningful story lines.  For example, look at the relationships surrounding Snuffleupagus.  Before you can begin, you need to understand who "Snuffie" is and what character traits he possesses.  Once you have profiled him as a character, you can examine his pals and their interactions.  How is it that Snuffie can be such good friends with Big Bird, but also maintain a relationship with Oscar the Grouch?  What experiences does Snuffie have with his friends that fosters learning of relationship skills?  With a little help, students will be able to connect with the emotions and interactions of many characters from the gang.  I think you can see where I'm going with this.

Beyond the characters are the human beings that actually embody the puppets.  The likes of Kevin Clash, Frank Oz and other puppeteers behind the scenes offer an opportunity to explore a level of intelligence, creativity, commitment and camaraderie that is first class in all regards.  The production of Sesame Street has become a mainstay in American homes and is now permeating other parts of the world.  There are entire productions of the show that have been developed and aired in native languages in countries like France.  Think of the possibilities for developing characters, puppets, scenes, and entire productions in an elementary, middle or high school.

I will admit there is something that seems a little different about the Core Standards than state standards launched from No Child Left Behind, however the common language that is created from standardizing learning experiences for educators in CCSS doesn't necessarily develop common language for the students we work with during the school year.  When one child changes schools over the summer, or in the middle of the year, there isn't a common experience report card that gets transferred with them notifying their new teacher of their previous classroom experiences and common school language.  But wouldn't it be interesting if there was?  (Edmodo is the only platform I've discovered that would allow anything remotely close to this kind of transition assistance.)

Common language is what connects us as educators and humans.  Different names for the same thing happen because our language and experiences are different.  Research has shown the impact of developing and focusing on common language and goals.  Take as an example the 7 Habits of Happy Kids , spawned from the 7 Habits of Healthy People by the late Stephen Covey, that have been integrated in schools across the United States.  By using common language, groups of people can more easily focus on working together and eliminate excess dialogue when developing common understandings.

Elmo knows Sesame Street.  He knows his neighborhood and has learned how to handle neighbors like Oscar.  What if Elmo moved?  Well if he moved to Rue Sesame in France he might only have to deal with the language barrier and not the behavior of his new neighbors.  But if he moves to a place where the language, people and culture are dis aggregated and don't share common language, it might be a greater challenge to fit in to his new community.  What kind of school building, district and community are you a part of?  Is there common language, experiences and expectations for students, families and educators or do you spend time discovering different names for the same things?

Friday, May 11, 2012

One Teacher's Life

I must admit, this week I have felt like one of the most important people in the world.  Every morning I was greeted with some kind of letter, card or gift expressing appreciation for my efforts as a teacher.  It has made me feel incredible.  So, first things first, THANK YOU to everybody that has contributed to the learning process in my classroom this year!  I love my students, job and knowing I've had an impact on the lives of my students and greater school community.  Coincidentally, the Golden Apple organization (based in Chicago) announced it's new class of Fellows this week.  Congratulations to the winners!  Congratulations also to all the nominees and finalists.  The Golden Apple is one organization that does an outstanding job recognizing excellent teachers and rewarding some of Illinois' finest with great opportunities and an outstanding network of people that care deeply about education.  I still feel fortunate to be connected to another family of educators.  

Now, I could continue a rant and rave about all the perks of being a teacher, but you already know why millions of people choose to teach.  I could stand on the proverbial soap box and demand improvements in working conditions, school resources and compensation for educators, but I think I'd be preaching to the choir on my little blogging stage.  Instead, I'd like to encourage YOU to think about a teacher that touched your life and reach out to them.  Even if that means you track down someone you haven't seen or heard from in years.  The Internet and social media has given us all a new way to connect with people in our world.  Why not take advantage of this opportunity and let an educator know how they helped you become a better person?  It might take a some time and you might have to learn something, but it will be worth it.  Want to start somewhere?  A simple Google search might be a good place to start.  You might also try LinkedIn, Facebook, Ning, Pinterest, Tumblr, E-mail or the school's website where they teach.  For all I know, you might find them playing Words With Friends or the most recent outlandishly simplistic social fad game, Draw Something.
In parting, I promised a couple of my students I would publish one of their recent creations on the front page of my blog.  Most of the work they complete is shared within our classroom and school community.  Occasionally, there are things that are created for a greater audience (like our recent Global Virtual Classroom website). So, I will leave you with this video created to document Sunset Towers from Ellen Raskin's novel, The Westing Game.  This was a read aloud book we dissected together as a class.  Various projects spawned from student interest and ideas.  The video captures apartment rooms designed and built from details in the story.  The whole construction was inspired by the Thorne Miniature Rooms on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Great job, class!  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Educational Puzzle

Recent events leading up to today have encouraged me to express my thoughts regarding the learning process in my classroom.  I care deeply about the students I teach and want them to be successful in whatever it is they do with their life.  I want them to explore their imagination, embrace inquiry and pursue their curiosities.  I want them to discover what they are passionate about, know how to work hard and learn how to achieve goals.  Yes, I hold these aspirations for all the nine and ten year old children I teach, the six and seven year old kids I used to teach, and all the students I will teach in the years ahead.  These are characteristics I think many successful people have in common.

In my years of teaching I have found a handful of constants in the educational process.  Two constants in my mind as I write this are the unique nature of learning and the bond between a teacher and students.  In both, there are moments of greatness, acts of compassion, and shining lights of brilliance.  With both there are also times of frustration, exhaustion, and despair.  But stick with me through this thought;  The learning process is unique to the learner, constantly shifting and is shaped by experiences both in and out of school.  It's more or less existential.  (Before you go running away in philosophical disarray, I ask you to continue reading.)  And, as Arne Duncan has been quoted saying several times, "a teacher is the single greatest influence on student achievement."  To be clear, I consider student achievement beyond that of standardized testing scores.  

I have to admit that my interactions with students and families are confined to what many refer to as "school".  I see my students in our building, I see their families here, and rarely does my life beyond my professional commitments extend to experiences outside of the "academic" realm.  I blame this more on the fact that I live in Chicago and teach in a suburb than on my willingness to be involved in the community beyond the school environment.  Growing up in rural Minnesota I am more than familiar with running into my teacher at the grocery store, seeing my principal at church, or having my teacher threaten to call my father because he knows where he works.  This begins to get at my focus.  Each child I teach, comes into my classroom with a world of experiences I will never be able to hear about and sees the world in a relatively unique way.  Life experiences are what shape individual's thoughts, beliefs and values.  Although some of my personal thoughts, beliefs and values may differ (or be the same for that matter), I work to develop relationships that allow me and my students to focus on learning experiences and outcomes.  I also want to help everyone enjoy the process.  After all, at some point learning should be fun.  

Let me borrow the words of Forrest Gump to illustrate more concretely what I'm trying to say.  Teaching is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.  And that is precisely when the puzzle begins.  There are so many different pieces to the puzzle for each child, teacher, principal, administrator and anyone else involved in education.  The final puzzle is like a mythical scene that is unique for everyone involved, we just all hope it looks good enough to frame and hang up on the wall.   I'll refer you to a post from Chris Lehmann about the ethic of care (This is a shorter version from his writings at that transcends the content and specific learning objectives to focus on the manner by which students and teacher can be empowered.  The only way a puzzle can come together is by searching through the pile of pieces to find the one that has the right fit and repeating the process until the picture is complete.  But as any real puzzler knows, once one puzzle is finished there's always another waiting.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Higher Level Thinking

This week my school finished administering the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, more commonly referred to as ISATs.  When all the required tests are finished, all fourth graders will have spent 440 minutes reading, writing, crunching some numbers and analyzing pictures, graphs and charts... and yes, using pencils to fill in bubbles.  Say what you will about standardized testing but until something significant happens, public school children will be required to complete these tests.  Here is a rambling of mine from last year prior to ISATs.

The whole testing process has provoked me to think more deeply about what it is that makes learning experiences valuable for children, how to assess them and, furthermore, what makes great teaching.  (All the thinking might be a product of my inability to do kind of real teaching during the 440 minutes of testing.) In a recent article I read about standardized tests, the author tried to play devil's advocate to examples of standardized test questions.  With many of the answers seeming cynical, I took the point to be that just about any question can be interpreted differently by any one person at any time.  I believe there is some truth to that.  Some of the responses really put into perspective the unique nature of thinking and the critical lens I believe all educators should strive to develop in their students.  How do we get children (and adults for that matter) to engage in higher level thinking?  What does that look like in the digital world?

Through further investigation, and a timely Twitter feed, I stumbled up this interpretation of Bloom's Digital Taxonomy.  There can be a very structured design to developing higher level, critical thinking sequences of learning in any classroom.  Digital tools can be used to enhance the learning and materialize student (and teacher) objectives and learning outcomes.  Although the level names aren't identical to Bloom's original taxonomy  the goal is: Students need to be the ultimate driver of their own learning and the pinnacle of their learning process can be evidenced by a tangible creation.  Can we standardize that in a way that is suitable for every child in every school all across the country?  Probably not.

Which leads me to my lasting thought for this post... teachers have an effect on the thinking of their students.  Positive or negative the reality is true.  Teachers spend more time with their students that some parents do in an average school day.  How teachers authenticate learning in their classrooms can be just as unique as the children they teach and no set of standardized tests, curriculum or projects can ever fully capture that.  However, one thing I do believe can be streamlined is thinking and the process by which a teacher engages a student to think on higher levels, inquire with greater depth, and create with better understanding.  Now let's try and standardize that!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Required vs. Optional

It's almost daily that I jostle these tags; as a teacher, leader, professional, colleague and person.  Too often I hear educators telling me they have to do this or have to do that.  Sometimes I like to ask, "do you really have to do that?" or "what if you tried this?"  The simple question does for many fellow educators precisely what it does to my students: makes them stop and think.

Certainly there is a veritable array of obligations teachers and administrators have to peg higher up on the priority ladder, but how much of what we say we have to do is optional?  These are questions I continually ask myself as a classroom teacher because I want to get the "required" stuff out of the way so I can open learning opportunities for my students that aren't scripted to me in a curriculum book or delegated from a political hierarchy.  I find that, in more times than not, when students are given an opportunity to inquire and investigate a concept or topic, questions and creativity flow naturally.  Absolutely, I believe there are some skills students will only acquire when guided through the process but now there are incredibly powerful resources (computers, classmates, personnel) more readily available for accessing information and learning opportunities.  Teachers and students need to leverage these tools for learning what matters.

I also believe that we impart on children the kinds of attitudes and skills we use in the classroom.  If we want our students to be open communicators that know how to work collaboratively and think critically, we have to demonstrate, on a regular basis, what that looks like.  We must engage ourselves in these opportunities with our colleagues and students.  Sometimes finding the time to do those "optional" lessons and projects can be difficult when the "required" stuff gets in the way.  That is why I encourage you to prioritize learning for yourself and students with what should be done and what could be done.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Balancing the Act of Learning... and Teaching

Have you heard the term "blended learning" yet?  If you haven't then I'd love to introduce it to you with a publication titled The Rise of Blended Learning.  Once you get a better understanding of the idea, the rest of this post might be easier to digest.  For those that will not read the link--blended learning is essentially a learning environment in which teachers and students use both computer based (typically online) instruction blended with traditional teaching methods and classroom experiences.  The teacher reverts from an all-knowing talking-head to a guide that helps when someone is struggling to understand or needs some help.

There is a weathering storm of educators across our nation that has been working diligently to transform traditional classrooms into more student-centered learning environments.  A recent article in the New York Times spotlighted an entire school community that has been forever changed by the ambitious adoption of 1:1 computing and a blended learning philosophy.  There was a seemingly endless stream of similar success (and failure) stories making news a couple weeks ago during the first annual Digital Learning Day.  It seems almost daily that more school communities are making the jump toward a technology infused, digitally enhanced teaching and learning structure.

So what prevents everyone from doing it? There are many logistical nightmares facing educators interested in making the transformation from analog to digital, so-to-speak, with cost, infrastructure and teacher training at tops on many lists.  However, many schools are finding incredible achievement gains, increases in student motivation and greater utility of resources as major benefits to the transformation.  But this concern is a whole other conversation.

I'd like to consider my classroom a crudely constructed blended learning experiment.  I'm very fortunate to have great colleagues that are open to change and have a willingness to learn.  And why, I ask myself, are these teachers and administrators open to change?  I believe it is rooted in the impact it's having on students.  They see the increased levels of student engagement when learning is driven by a modern tool (netbook, iPad) and controlled by the child.  They see the impact on a teacher's ability to collect real-time data with programs like Ten Marks Math and Lexia Reading.  Blended learning also includes the use of devices as tools for collaboration and creation for both teachers and students, alike.  It's a completely different model of learning that puts the world's most powerful learning tools in the hands of the learner.  When educators have an opportunity to experience first-hand how a transformed learning environment empowers children to learn differently than years ago, it's hard to dispute the need for all children to having similar learning opportunities.    

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Evolving Education

Last week Apple made a major announcement about digital text books and authoring tools that will undoubtedly have an impact on the education market and community.  One part of the announcement included the release of the iTunes U app that puts an enormous collection of educational courses at the fingertips of anyone with the app.  The content covers a vast spectrum of study topics and has great materials for teaching and learning.  iTunes U will connect people all over the world with access to educational content like never before.  How can this not change the future of textbooks and learning? At the time of this post there were already 3 million iTunes U downloads.

This means there is a reliable, scholarly repository of information for anyone to access.  What does it mean for your children and their school work?  Will it have an immediate impact in your child's classroom, home or anywhere else they have an enabled learning device?  Like many-a-thing in education it must be played with, learned, and applied in appropriate contexts.  I can tell you that I downloaded the app and did a quick search for ecosystems because that is what our current research topic is for fourth grade.  I was surprised to find an entire course on ecosystems.  The course was not created for 9 and 10 year olds but some of the videos and other materials are definitely relevant for students investigating Earth's biomes.  So what did I do with what I found?  I shared it.  I shared it with students, teachers, parents, and you!  Some of the students understood the language and vocabulary while it was over the heads of others.  But that's what education has become.  What works for one, might not work for another and that's okay.  Right now, this is another tool to add to the belt for the battle of innovation in education.

Looking ahead, imagine what access to this kind of information will do for learners.  Think of the possibilities for accessing reliable content when researching and learning at any age.  And I haven't mentioned iBooks 2 or iBooks Author because I am still investigating and looking for an opportunity to toggle with them.  From what I have seen, this is a new, intuitive kind of textbook "experience".  The interactivity has set a new president for what digital textbooks will look like and how functional they should be.  Of course there are practical concerns to address, such as the need to have Apple products to use some of the apps.  Instead I choose to focus on the progress that has been made when three major American textbook publishers partner with one of the most influential and successful technology companies in the world.  Until access to this content is available in every public school classroom across our country, I'll continue to learn about new educational tools and find ways to incorporate them into the hands of the students I teach everyday.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winter MAP Testing

Hello All!  The next two weeks in our school will be adjusted to our winter MAP testing schedule.  Reminder, MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) tests are administered three times a school year and give us a snapshot of student growth in math and reading areas.  Data from these tests is used to guide and individualize student and classroom instruction in the content areas of math and reading.

Our class will take the math test this Wednesday, January 18 from 9:30-10:45am and the reading test next Monday, January 23 from 8:15-9:45am.  Please be sure your child gets plenty of rest and a good breakfast the morning of each testing day.  If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me or visit the MAP Testing homepage at