Dusting off the blog…and a new career move

So…long time no see…Life has been especially hectic for me the past year.  There have been several changes behind the scenes, and now a big one on the forefront of my career.  Beginning Wednesday of next week, for the first time in my educational career, I will be embarking on a journey that doesn’t involve a classroom of students directly in front of me. After 8 August “first days of school” I will be transitioning out of my 7th grade classroom and into the position of Director of Technology and Science for my district.  This presents a few challenges:

  • Lowered student interaction – While I’ve been told that the ideal amount of time out in the schools will be high, I will be visiting classrooms across all 17 schools in our district. That means the connections I’ve been able to make with students the past eight years will be limited to occasional interactions. Telling the students this past week was very difficult, because leaving in the middle of the school year is incredible unusual.
  • Job Expectations – When I began my career in a 7th grade classroom, I kind of knew what to expect. I would be in front of a room of twenty-five or so 12 and 13 year olds, I would likely know more than them, and (show of hands, how many never felt like this?) if I didn’t know more than them, I could just make it up.  Oh, and then there was the fact that I knew if I could be just slightly funny to a 12 year old, I could get them to like me.  Enter thousands of situations where I convinced them I was just “one step crazier” than they were, and it didn’t take long for me to have 7th graders figured out.  This made integrating technology pretty easy as my relationship with the students was the foundation of all my other endeavors.  Now as the lead Tech and Science teacher for the county, I’m going to be responsible for building relationships with many other adults throughout the county.  I’m sure they will be much less easy to win over than my groups of early adolescents.  But, I’m convinced, even in this situation building those relationships will be a positive toward moving forward for our county in the future.
  • Picking up some pieces, and moving forward – This job does not come without a few things that are obviously going to need to be attempted early on.  Part of my job will be developing the vision for Carteret County Schools moving forward throughout the next few years. Early on, I want to get into the schools, get a view of what they are currently being successful with, and where they need to go. Some of our schools have both a Media Coordinator and a Technology Facilitator, others have a single individual serving both purposes.  Our district has had a tendency in the past to jump on a few bandwagons, and perhaps wound up purchasing things that in reality didn’t serve their intended purposes. My job will be to develop a plan for those kinds of purchases, so we don’t find ourselves with a set of equipment that is suddenly outdated, under-utilized, and laughably unnecessary.

So there you go…a few of my reservations heading into an exciting new adventure. This is a big move, but one I feel like will be a fantastic journey over the coming years. I’ll definitely be leaning on some of you over the course of the next few months as I get my feet wet and encounter some of the challenges I know I’ll be facing.

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Suggestions for a Parent Re: Homework

Way back in March of 2009 I posted Session Notes on Homework With Rick Wormeli from the NCMSA conference.  Recently I had the following comment posted in response to my notes (emphasis mine):

Thanks for the great notes above. I’m on a school board and also the parent of 2 girls – junior and sophomore in high school. Rick Wormeli did a workshop for our local educators and our principal was raving about him so I googled his name and came up with this site. I appreciated the notes above and wish I could bring Rick back again for the high school teachers. My sophomore is very social, full of life, bucks the systems, comes to the aid of those she sees are being treated unfairly, looks at things with common sense – yes, she’s a rebel but she’s smart too and has missed some homework assignments that resulted in a zero. Ok, I can live with that. But, I’m having a little back and forth with her math teacher about homework that she did do. My daughter completed a 3 page packet but because she didn’t have it out on her desk and wasn’t “prepared” for class, the teacher gave her a zero. I pointed out to the teacher that I felt being prepared for class and having homework completed were 2 different things. But she doesn’t see it that way and maintains that she’ll continue to get zeros on completed homework unless she is in the class, sitting in her seat, homework on desk, pencil and notebook ready to take notes. I’m very frustrated. Any suggestions or constructive thoughts I can pass along to the teacher or should I just let it go??

This is definitely a tough situation as grading policies are a MAJOR struggle for many teachers. In my own classroom, classwork and homework account for a total of 15% of the student’s final grade.  The other 85% come from things which I feel are final determinations of mastery: tests, quizzes, projects, lab activities, and a notebook test.  In this respect, getting a 0 for not completing a homework assignment doesn’t have a dramatic overall effect on the final grade.  At the same time, I’m generally pretty open about a student completing the homework assignment after it is due.  The point is that they learn the material, if they are making a good faith effort to do that, then I’m fine with them continuing to work until they master the content.  Not every student makes that good faith effort however, and that’s when things become difficult.  What do you do when a student NEVER turns in a homework assignment, especially when homework is only assigned that moves the students forward in their learning.

Back to the point…

I would carefully steer the discussion with the teacher to the points of: A) what does the final grade in your class mean? and B) what is the reasoning behind your grading scale/practice?  These are tough questions, and in some instances grading scales may be mandated by a department.  Additionally, a teacher may only have the grading scale they do based on what the other teachers use, even if it is not “mandated.”  To me the grading scale plays a major part in the impact and fairness of giving a zero on an assignment.

I know there are many out there with widely varying opinions…please add your thoughts in the comments!

Leadership Day 2010: Consistency, Vision, and Bravery

So here we are, the 4th year of Dr. McLeod’s Leadership Day.  As I considered this post and it’s eventual topic, I frequently came back to the image at right that Scott shared for us to include in our posts.  The implication I kept coming to was that “Change is slow, let’s speed it up.”  Thinking about a number of discussions I’ve had about Educational Leadership over the past few months, I’ve modified my interpretation of the image, and that led me to the three things I want to highlight for leaders who may be reading this post.  I believe the operative interpretation of the image is “Real change is slow, let’s kick it up a notch.”

Last year, my Leadership Day post highlighted 8 pieces of advice I had for school leaders and administrators.  Many of those focused on the relationship between leadership and technology.  This year, I want to focus on three values that I think are important for 21st Century School Leaders throughout history and moving forward.  These values do not simply revolve around technological progress in the current educational market, they are centered around taking a stand for real education reform in the coming years.  My apologies if this post isn’t “technological” enough.  Cutting to the chase:

Consistency

There is unbelievable pressure for change in the educational world.  In this day and age of standards, testing, and accountability every school year ends with someone somewhere saying “OK, so what will you do to make things better next year?”  It’s not hard to imagine the question being asked on all levels of the educational spectrum.  Teachers talking to students. Principals to teachers.  Superintendents to Principals.  School Board members to Superintendents.  State level educational departments to Superintendents.  Federal level Department of Education to state level departments.  Change is not only encouraged, it’s expected.  Unfortunately, that often leads to inconsistency.  Policies and programs that are implemented one year, are discarded for different approaches the next year.  Things that worked and were effective become part of the status quo, so they must go.  One of the problems I see being generated by our current educational climate is “change for the sake of change.”

As an educational leader, it is important to maintain a level of consistency with your staff.  If there is pressure from above to “change” consider how that change can happen within your current structure.  There is no need to scrap programs that are working in an effort to incorporate the latest buzzwords.  Nor is there reason to rename current programs to make them seem to fit the latest round of mandates.  The same goes for suddenly focusing on a certain program/technological advancement/practice in order to vault yourself above a neighboring school or district.  We need leaders in education who will not bend under the wind of “and now what?”  We need leaders who will be consistent without being bull-nosed in the face of failure.  We need leaders who can distinguish between what works, and what sounds good on paper.

Vision

The only way for our leaders to have that consistency in the current climate of “change” is for them to have a clear vision for the direction of their school and the educational community as a whole. That vision must be informed by the nature of today’s world.  Our students must be successful beyond the skill and drill, recall oriented tests they are subjected to year in and year out.  Our educational leaders do not need to have their Vision tainted by the desire to outdo their colleagues.  When schools are compared to one another based on test scores and educational leaders begin to jockey for position ahead of one another in the eyes of the public, their motives become disingenuous and their integrity questionable.  Yes, competition is important.  Competition breeds ingenuity.  Competition forces the bar to be raised.  Our leaders need to tie those aspects of competition into their SHARED vision for the future of education.  Too often, our Vision within schools is clouded by the short-term, limited to our narrow band of experiences, and not discussed with others in the profession.  We need school leaders who will share their Vision, allow it to be shaped by those they work with, and the changing world in which we live.  We need school leaders whose Vision is not clouded by the mandates placed on them from all around.  Work within those mandates to see your vision through, or work to change those mandates to something that actually makes sense.

Bravery

The first two values can only come about when our educational leaders are able to stand up for what they believe, in the face of pressure and adversity from above, around, and below.  Parents are comfortable with the model of schools they attended growing up.  Shifting that will bring pressure from one direction.  Being consistent with policies and programs that work, while discarding those that are ineffective may be unpopular with your colleagues and superiors.  It is far more difficult to explain at the end of the year why you stuck beside a program that had moderate success than to dream up an explanation for why the next new program will be the biggest success story your district has ever seen.  It takes a brave person to come in with a vision for changes and to consistently maintain a path toward that future.  Educational leaders however have never been a group to sit and cower in the corner.  Constantly bombarded from all directions by those who “know how things should be done” our educational leaders have always been under pressure.  We need educational leaders who can withstand that pressure, and at the end of the day justify why they are not spending unnecessary money on technology that looks good but won’t impact learning.  Or why they are still allow experiential learning environments for middle school students, even if that means a non-academic field trip.  Or why they will not be pressured into a new program when it goes against the vision they have for their school or district.

Consistency. Vision. Bravery.  As an educational leader, can you even begin to fathom those being the three words people used to describe you and your career?  If so, please share what you are doing with as many people as possible.  If not…it’s time to kick it up a notch.

We’re Talking…But Who’s Listening?

Tonight I spent a little bit of time discussing how to get disinterested teachers engaged in the use of technology with the other folks on the weekly Twitter #edchat discussion. I must say, this is an issue I’m struggling with mightily lately. Last March, when I attended the NCMSA conference, my response was one of amazement at the limited number of individuals who were using technology AT the conference. I assumed things would be better at the NMSA conference in Indianapolis. While things were “better” and part of the limitation was a lack of free wifi throughout the conference site, there was still a smaller than expected number of teachers taking/posting their notes or thoughts on blogs or Twitter.

I attended several technology sessions while at NMSA09 as well. The overwhelming feeling I got during these sessions was that I was ahead of the curve when it came to using the tools within my classroom, but the vast majority of attendees were nowhere close. The awareness of tools that I think are the lynchpins of collaboration and creation in today’s classrooms just isn’t there with the large portion of teachers.

So on the one hand, we have a small, dedicated group of educators who gather each week on Twitter to discuss issues regarding technology in education, differentiation, and other pertinent topics. On the other hand, we have the uncountable masses of teachers who are unaware/unsure of their ability to use tech in their classrooms. How then do we drag the conversation from #edchat to those teachers who aren’t even in the conversation at this point? The pace of change of tools is enough to make my head spin, so our discussion can’t simply focus on tools. Yet at the same time, there HAS to be a basic understanding of the tools to get to what they can do in an educational setting. So while we’re moving on to newer, more collaborative tools like Google Wave, we have legions of teachers who think that Wiki stands for “What I Know Is” and still think that Wikipedia is a cesspool of misinformation.

I had an excellent conversation with a colleague of mine this afternoon (the only one who attended today’s Tech in 20 session). She is admittedly a less tech-savvy, or should I say “technorate,” teacher. She has worked hard to include the use of the Internet and her SMART Board in her classroom this year. She also moved her school website over to a blog (more for formatting, than for actual blogging purposes). Many of these moves have been a struggle for her, but she’s made the attempt. Our conversation drifted toward the “digital native/digital immigrant” false dichotomy and she expressed concern:

What if some of us (teachers) will just never get it?  Like a deaf person who gets a cochlear implant late in life, and while able to hear, has lost the neural pathways that allow them to learn proper speech.  What if our brains have missed out on the chance to learn a lot of this stuff?

That, to me, was of great concern.  On one level, there’s concern if there is any truth to that idea.  It would mean that the vast majority of teachers who did not grow up with technology will finish out their careers without fully understanding something that can have a great impact on their students.  On another level, I’m concerned that an idea like that could be used as grounds for a teacher to bury his/her head in the sand and never reach out and attempt what my colleague has done this year.

As one of the first generation of teachers who would generally be considered to have “grown up digital” I have some great concerns for the direction of our profession.  Many folks have been working diligently for years to try and promote tech integration.  However the names of such folks like Will Richardson, Wes Fryer, and the numerous others are far less recognizable than they should be.  In his TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson pointed out that the students entering Kindergarten the year he spoke (2006) would be retiring in 2065 and we have no clue about what skills/knowledge they will actually need.  Isn’t this statement true of any generation however? Are we more keenly aware of the different landscape of the future due to the rapid pace of change in our lives? If we, as teachers, are more keenly aware than our counterparts 50+ years ago, why then is there still so little movement to incorporate the things we feel are necessary for success in the job/learning markets our students will be entering?

Meteorology Day: A Plea for Connections

Two weeks from today, I am setting aside the day with my students and calling it Meteorology Day.  I’ve been flexing the muscles of my PLN frequently this year, but this is the biggest challenge to date. This all started from a random thought during our first day discussing weather.  I sent out a quick tweet to my PLN asking them to tweet their location and the day’s forecast.  50 to 60 responses later, my mind was churning in overdrive.  Are their any meteorologists on Twitter? Do any of them Skype? Could I get folks from across the country to talk to my students for a few minutes about the challenges of forecasting in their area?

The answer to all three questions apparently, is YES!  I found a WeFollow list of meteorologists on Twitter and sent tweets to a number of them asking for help.  From their I contacted the husband of one of my wife’s college friends who is a meteorologist in Richmond, VA.  He gave me the names of 5 other friends of his throughout the US.  I also contacted our local news station to see if anyone there would be willing to Skype with us.  So far,  I have 5 confirmations, including a teacher from Australia who will be joining us for an anecdotal talk about weather conditions in Western Australia.

I’m still looking for others though. Currently, I have folks from North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Pittsburgh (with experience in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), and Western Australia.  I’m still looking for someone in Oklahoma or Texas as well as some Pacific Coast folks and perhaps someone in the Southwest.

If you have any contacts in any of those areas, or truthfully in other International areas, I’d love to see how extensive we can get this thing. I’m hoping to have at least 2 per class period from 10am to 3pm EST (with a 45 minute break 12:15 to 1pm for lunch).  Please pass this post along to anyone who might be able to get in touch with a meteorologist who might want to work with some amazing 7th graders to help them understand weather and the atmosphere.

Also look for a wrap-up post after our day of connections on October 15th! There’s quite a bit of excitement in my classroom for this day already!

Embedding Teachers

Earlier this morning, Bud Hunt posted a tweet about his plans for the first few weeks of school:Tweet Bud Hunt Embedding

Just a simple planning note, but it got me thinking. My immediate response was this:
Tweet Response to @budtheteacher

Wouldn’t it be awesome if teachers came with an embed code? Imagine, hundreds of teachers using services like uStream or LiveStream and broadcasting their classes/lessons out to the world. A student anywhere with Internet access could just grab the embed code from their favorite science, social studies, math, arts, foreign language teachers and create their own “classroom”. Beyond that, imagine a world where choosing those teachers was as simple as following folks on Twitter. Students could go in and follow the feed of a teacher where links, discussion topics, videos, Q&As were posted. Think something similar to Edmodo, but where students pick the teachers to follow rather than being enrolled in a class.

Granted at some point this would become unwieldy for the teachers as good ones could easily wind up with 100s of students following them. But imagine coupling those two ideas with students creating reflection blogs. The blog could serve as the students “assignment”, documenting the conversations and thinking shifts that would inevitably come from pooling together some of the best technology focused teachers in the world. The environment could easily be synchronous or asynchronous. Lessons could be supplemented with a tool like Elluminate to allow for discussions between groups, even on an ad hoc basis.

Now the downside is, students would have to be motivated enough to go and seek out those teachers broadcasting their lessons. But imagine the power of having many of those in your PLN as embedded teachers in your children’s lives.

Five Things: If I Were Brave…

I originally considered this to be an analysis of many of the things Rick Wormeli mentioned in his Keynote address back at the North Carolina Middle School Conference in March.  Thanks to a comment on my original “Braver Teaching” post, I thought this would make a good blog meme.  So, what five things would you do in education/the classroom if you were brave enough? Here’s my list:

  1. Go Paperless – A large part of activities I have my students work on could be done in a paperless environment. The rest would need to be modified slightly. The lack of an “always available” computing solution makes this one difficult. Our school has several labs, and I could probably wind up in one most days, but there are still a significant number of days where my students wouldn’t have access making this one something I’ve not attempted yet. Also, would I have to stop having my kids build paper roller coasters?
  2. Get my Master’s in Education Technology, and not leave the classroom – This may actually be two brave things wrapped into one. With two small children at home my Master’s has been put on hold. I’ve long thought I would get it in Middle Grades Education, but have recently thought more about Ed Tech.  The struggle for me is not wanting to leave the regular classroom.  I get the feeling that use of technology by a classroom teacher goes further with a staff than someone who’s primary job is to incorporate tech into class activities. I also don’t want the hassle of being viewed as a technician rather than an educator.
  3. Teach on a two teacher team – I’m currently on a four person team and really enjoy working with my teammates. However, I’d love to try out a two person team where I taught both math and science. I think the opportunities for integration between subject areas would be much more plentiful when coordinating with only one other person. Also, the number of students would be more manageable with only about 50 rather than 100.
  4. Overseas travel experience – I’m so not there yet, but wish I were. I have the utmost respect for Chad Brannon taking groups of middle schoolers all over the place through EF Tours. I went on my own European tour with EF after high school and it was one of the most memorable and fantastic times of my life. I would love to have the courage to take 10 to 15 middle school kids on a similar experience, but just haven’t quite gotten up the nerve to really consider it yet.
  5. Blogging with students – One of the recent things I’ve seen discussed was that of using a blog for a digital portfolio.  Our school community is not quite on board yet with the idea of student blogging. Evidence of that was my attempt earlier this year to pilot the program with 6 or 7 kids.  We discussed it over lunch one day, they went home and talked it over with their parents, and 1 came back the next day saying her parents were willing to let her give it a try.  This is one I definitely plan to continue pushing toward for the next school year.

I’m specifically tagging Kelly Hines, Chad Brannon, Ben Grey, Paul Bogush (thanks for the idea), and anyone else who would like to be a bit more brave in their teaching lives.