marybeth

 
Me at ASCDReflecting on a busy weekend of conversation and learning at this year’s annual ASCD conference in Los Angeles, a few bright spots stand out for me. I attended ASCD two years ago in Philadelphia and I couldn’t help but notice that while conversations haven’t necessarily shifted too much (school leadership, school transformations, teaching strategies, assessment, Common Core) I found that more and more sessions addressed digital technologies, connected learning and inquiry-based learning. I also got a sense that many attendees craved interactivity within their sessions and were not too shy to engage with complete strangers within their sessions. These are the bright spots that make this year’s conference feel different than the last one I attended.

Social Media and Connected Learning

Saved by TwitterOn Saturday morning, during the “Saved by Twitter” session, I watched complete strangers huddle in groups to discuss social media, their use of Twitter, the challenges involved in using social media and I witnessed a few people send their first tweet or use a hashtag for the first time. This is a huge shift from two years ago when there were very few people tweeting at the conference and Twitter wasn’t widely considered a tool for schools and teachers (and students). Now, it seems, many educators and school leaders realize that they have no choice but to get on board with social media, and they are exploring the tool. Some of the session attendees pondered questions such as, “Should I have two accounts, one personal and one for school?” or, especially if they’d been on Twitter for a few months, “What do I have to add to the conversation? I haven’t really had anything profound to share.” Mixed in were questions about chats, various symbols they saw, what it means to follow someone, what it means to “retweet” someone and others. I’m not sure how many people from that session continued to tweet over the course of the conference, but the eagerness to learn was palpable.
In addition, there were more sessions this year focused around topics like integrating technology, digital citizenship, mobile learners, technology and critical thinking and others. As a frequent attendee of the annual ISTE conference, and a Technology teacher, I found the conference in Philadelphia lacking many sessions dedicated to technology in the classroom. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend one of the technology sessions this year due to schedule conflicts, but just the amount of sessions discussing technology in the classroom gave me hope.

Student-Centered, Project Based Learning

Another bright spot was the increased number of sessions referring to project or problem-based learning. More and more conversations that I heard while sitting on a couch in the networking lounge or walking between sessions seemed more focused on student-centered learning and while many still touted the Common Core, and while I could not visit every session to see if what was being discussed was truly PBL, this shift gives me hope that more schools are moving toward student-centered classrooms.
I was lucky enough to have a brief conversation in the press room with some of the staff from Washington Montessori School, this year’s winner of the Vision in Action Award. The staff described the culture shift for staff, students and families when the school, which had been labeled as a “Priority School” with only 50% of its students reading at grade level, transitioned into a magnet Montessori school. They described the independence they foster in their Pre-K through 5th grade students, 78% of whom qualify for free/reduced lunch. The work they have done to develop a truly inquiry-based environment is inspiring. The fact that this kind of work is being done to turn schools around rather than some of the models I currently see in Philadelphia gives me hope.
I also spoke with a teacher who works in an urban district outside of Chicago who described the positive changes her school has gone through, the focus they have been putting on supporting kids and families, the vision and dedication that new leadership has brought to the school and the way that staff have stepped up to get the necessary hard work done to turn the school around.
These are the stories that we need to hear, and the fact that people are telling these stories and that ASCD was able to shine a light on the transformation of Washington Montessori also gives me hope.

Go Ahead, Talk to Each Other

Edcamp at ASCDThe final bright spot that really stood out for me this year was the increased amount of engagement between session attendees in sessions. It always pains me that almost all large conferences that I have attended (not just ASCD) set the rooms up like a classroom from the 19th Century with a sea of chairs all hooked together and facing front. I had a conversation with some Emerging Leader colleagues where we reflected on the fact that the best practices that we tout for children we rarely provide for teachers. I attended the Edcamp session and watched as attendees unhooked chairs and created discussion circles and then proceeded to generate discussion topics and hold discussions around topics of their choice. After the attendees regrouped, I could hear people telling their colleagues about the discussion they had just had. There was an energy in the room. It was awesome.
I also sat in on the “What Keeps You Up At Night” panel, and while about half of the time was spent like a traditional panel with a moderator, the attendees were given cards on which to write a question for the panel and the second half of the session was focused on the questions of the people in the room. This gave the session attendees a chance to interact both with the panel and with each other.
ASCD also had a new space this year called the #ASCDEdSpace. This was a space for informal conversation around topics chosen by attendees. This shows a huge shift in how large organizations like ASCD think about engaging their attendees and I think it is a step in the right direction. While this year’s space may not have been totally successful, I believe that were the space moved to the networking lounge rather than a back hallway, there would be a large number of people engaged in conversation about sessions, the keynote speakers and their own experiences. Myself and two other emerging leaders, Bethany Bernasconi and Dawn Chan decided to move our #ASCDEdSpace session to the networking lounge. We plopped ourselves down with complete strangers and struck up a conversation. No one balked at talking to a stranger, and the space was perfect for debriefing the day. If we had not moved to the lounge, I would not have met Tiffany, the teacher from the urban district outside of Chicago that I mentioned above.
I also overheard conversations at social events and while traversing the conference center that hinted at a desire for more interactivity in sessions. “I hate when they just stand up there and talk at you,” I overheard one attendee say. These experiences give me hope that professional development for teachers can begin to mirror the best practices that we use to design meaningful learning experiences for our students.
I’m sure that we will see the landscape shift even more as schools begin to move away from focusing on The Test as the sole assessment, as more and more schools adopt digital learning tools and as more and more school leaders realize the potential of their staff to learn together and from each other.
Despite what many would say about “education these days,” the bright spots I saw this weekend make me believe that that there is hope and that it will take all of us making big strides forward to enact the changes that will make schools more student-centered and focused on the learning process, not just the outcome.
 
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a report card conference with one of my advisees discussing his classes, his school work and some struggles he’d been having. At one point he said, “I think I’m taking advantage of the freedom I have.” It was a powerful statement and a one that really stuck with me.
We give our students at SLA Beeber a lot of freedoms. They are allowed to have cell phones in school, they have their own  laptop that they take home, along with an email account, and they are allowed to use Google Chat, Hangouts and Google+ to communicate with their peers (and teachers). They don’t have a strict dress code to follow and there are no metal detectors at the entrance of the school. They are also assigned long term projects that tie into their personal interests & incorporate choice rather than end of unit tests and lunch is an hour long to accommodate the amount of time they may need to work on projects or meet with teachers.
This may sound like a dream to many high school students, but it is very hard to navigate for a young person. With no one breathing down your neck telling you what to wear, when your cell phone could be confiscated if seen, when your social interactions with peers are controlled by adults, when you only have one way to show what you have learned, and when you are forced to gobble down lunch in 20 minutes, you don’t have much to navigate.
Having freedom is hard.
Decisions must be made, new habits must be formed and, often, students must grapple with their poor decisions, like hanging out with friends instead of working on a project, or not using the tools at one’s fingertips to contact teachers when they need help. Students also need to manage the freedom of having the world’s best distraction tool at their fingertips throughout the school day, and they have the responsibility to care for that device. They also have the responsibility to navigate appropriate use of their cell phone throughout the school day (and not lose that either.)
Many students come from environments where it was easy to know what was due and when because it was a worksheet, or a reading in a text book, or all of the Math problems on page 125. With the freedom to work on a project that incorporates their own choice & interests comes the hard work of managing deadlines, planning and collaborating with peers.
It has been an amazing experience watching our 9th graders work through this freedom, sometimes succeeding beyond their own expectations and sometimes becoming paralyzed by managing it all.
The young man from the conference has made a huge shift in taking responsibility for his work & we meet regularly to check in on his assignments. It makes me, as his “school mom” very proud but it has also opened my eyes to why giving kids freedom matters. This student has made a huge shift in his mindset that could not have happened otherwise. I can’t help but think about the expansion of “no excuses” schools or urban charter networks that focus on managing & regulating every aspect of students’ lives at school. We are setting our students up for failure if they don’t have a chance to falter & rebound and to navigate the freedoms that life outside of school provides.
 

As 2013 comes to a close, it is time to reflect on the past year. 2013 proved to be quite a transformative one. Considering that this is my first post since September, it has also proven to be a busy one. Here are some of my thoughts on the past year.

Spring 2013

2013 began with the honor of being named PAECT‘s Teacher of the Year in February. Being recognized with the award was quite a surprise and due to my limited ability to miss days at work, I was not able to be present for the presentation of the award, which I regret. PAECT is a wonderful organization that connects educators involved in educational technology across the state of Pennsylvania. I have met some amazing educators through my involvement with the organization.

March brought another momentous occasion. John, my boyfriend of over 8 years, and I decided to get married. On July 13th. I never was one of those girls who dreamed of her wedding day, so planning a wedding in less than 4 months was quite an experience, but more on that later. In March, two of my students won 1st place in the Programming category at the District Computer Fair, which was very exciting as I had been on my own journey learning about coding.

In May, I was elated to learn that I had been selected to be in the 2013 class of ASCD’s Emerging Leaders. This would give me an opportunity to make a difference in educational leadership outside of the educational technology realm I was used to inhabiting. I also connected with a number of Pennsylvania educators in the class and we have been collaborating with the Pennsylvania affiliate of ASCD (PASCD), which has been an exciting endeavor. This work will continue through 2014. I am also excited to attend ASCD’s annual conference in Los Angeles in March to connect face to face with many of the Emerging Leaders and participate in ASCD’s first “unconference.” May also brought the 3rd annual Edcamp Philly unconference, which I helped organize.

End of the School Year/Summer 2013

In June, I made a huge decision to leave my school of the previous three years to join the inaugural team of the Science Leadership Academy’s new Beeber campus. I had to quickly make sure that I was leaving my school in a good position to continue the technology program we had been working on for three years. This meant organizing paperwork and getting it to the right people, triple checking our inventory, leaving curricular materials with the instructional director. I also had to begin the process of returning to the School District of Philadelphia, which included doctor’s appointments, visits to the District’s main offices and many phone calls. At the same time, I was dress shopping, seeking out a venue, putting together a guest list, choosing a caterer, designing invitations and all of the other nitty gritty details that go along with planning a wedding. I spent hours on the phone with my mother, hours on Pinterest getting ideas and hours hot gluing and putting together the table signs and escort cards for our guests. Thinking back, it’s amazing I made it through the month of June at all.

Tech Girlz Summer CampJune was also exciting as it was my first year working with TechGirlz Summer Camp, an amazing week of entrepreneurship for teenage girls in the Philadelphia area. We had an amazing group of girls who came up with some really great companies and did some inspiring presentations. They worked with local developers and entrepreneurs to develop their products and companies throughout the week before presenting their companies to their families and a panel of “investors.”

 

 

Puna Night Market

John & MB WeddingAfter the blur of the wedding, we were off to Hawaii for 10 days. No work emails, no blogging, limited tweeting, and no one telling us what to do and where to be. It was blissful.

As soon as we returned in late July, reality came crashing down as worked a week teaching a Space and Aeronautics course that I designed and wrote before the summer began. It was a ton of fun. After that was a week spent with my new colleagues at SLA at Beeber. We spent an intense week breaking down project based learning and the ins and outs of life at SLA. It was exhausting and energizing at the same time. A week later, we spent a week getting to know our new students during Summer Institute. My exploration group spent a rainy afternoon exploring Paine’s Skate Park and I had some time to get to know my advisees, with whom I will be spending the entire four years of their high school careers.

 

Moving SLA@B

 

The fun didn’t stop there. Opening a new school is not for the faint of heart. We spent hours cleaning the third floor of Beeber Middle School that we would inhabit. We moved furniture, including desks, chairs, bookcases and cafeteria tables. We set up the office and the cafeteria ourselves, completing the last of the cafeteria tables and chairs the day before the first day of school, a day that most teachers had off from work. It was a heroic effort.

 

 

 

Fall 2013

We hit the ground running on Day One, welcoming students to the new school. The last few months have been a whirlwind. I often SLA@B Tech Classuse the metaphor of building the plane while flying it. There are so many day-to-day decisions to make, procedures to rethink, pedagogical ideas to explore, problems to be solved, along with the every day complexity of teaching 120 fifteen year olds with all of the joys that come along with raging hormones, identity exploration and with no upperclassmen to help guide them. We also provide students with a lot more agency and freedoms than many of them are used to. It’s been fascinating to watch them navigate these new freedoms and energizing to support them along the way. I have also really enjoyed the advisory program, through which I have gotten to know 19 students very well and have enjoyed discussing various issues as a group, traveling outside of the building together on trips and having individual conversations with each of them. I have also enjoyed teaching ninth graders for the first time. It has been insightful hearing their thoughts, opinions and reflections on Digital Citizenship and using technology. It’s also been an incredible journey transitioning from a lab (yuck!) to a classroom where every student has his or her own device. I look forward to supporting my colleagues with creating opportunities for students to use their devices effectively and creatively throughout the rest of the year.

Winter 2013

One of the exciting events to end 2013 was the Philly EdTech Meetup‘s holiday demo night in December, which brought one of our largest groups of attendees and truly reflected the community that my co-organizer, Donna Murdoch, and I have been working hard to build since we joined forces in 2012.

Photo courtesy of Travis Morgan on Flickr

 

Obviously, this year has been fast-paced and transformative. The school year has been busy, sometimes stressful and always energizing. One of the toughest parts of the school year is November to December, when we have our narrative report cards due and hold report card conferences and also work multiple weekends interviewing students for next year. It was also at this time that my husband and I were hit with the surprising and exciting news that we would be welcoming a new addition to our family in July 2014. This has created an entirely new kind of reflection. Over the last year, I have spent more time focusing on home and married life, and the time commitment of opening a new school has taken away from time I had spent in the past running around to conferences and other events, blogging and tweeting. My exhaustion over the last few months due to first trimester woes has also slowed me down.

This news will force me to rethink my lifestyle overall. I have spent most of the last 4 years engaging with educators around the globe, tweeting, blogging, traveling, presenting and focusing, well, on me and my career. At times, this has affected my relationship with my husband, though he has always been supportive. I don’t need to change my engagement with community of educators I have connected with over the years. It doesn’t mean that I need to stop blogging or even stop presenting or traveling. I do know, however, that my focus will undoubtedly change. There have been times when I have been working so hard that I haven’t seen my husband for days. 2014 will no doubt require me to change those habits. I already know that I want to refocus and reflect on what parts of my professional life I will be able to keep up with once this new addition arrives.

It looks like 2014 may rival 2013 for life changing events! I am thankful for all of the support and positivity that has come my way this past year from colleagues, friends, acquaintances and strangers. I wish everyone a happy and healthy 2014!

 

To start off the year, I decided to make sure that all of my 9th graders understand what the Internet really is and how it works before they get their Internet-ready laptops in a few weeks.

When they came in, they had the first five minutes of class to “draw the Internet.” I got a lot of quizzical looks. “What do you mean?” “You can’t draw the Internet!” I said, “If someone asked you what the Internet looked like, what would you draw?”

A few of the Internet drawings.

A few of the Internet drawings.

There were a variety of concepts including connected dots, a globe, drawings of homepages and Internet logos. A few students drew computers, one drew a phone. A few got their phones out and sketched a browser page on their phone.

I explained that while preparing for the lesson, I had been searching for a diagram of how the Internet works to show them and that all I found were pictures of computers connected to a grey cloud that said, “Internet.” I did find a fairly useful, short video that I showed them instead. Many people, I explained, that use the Internet, don’t really even understand what it is.

After watching the video, I asked them who their ISP was and they named Comcast, Verizon and Clear. We then reviewed the concept of IP addresses and the fact that all computers have them. We also discussed how IP addresses are changed into website names. It was, I admit, a lot to swallow and will require follow up lessons, but it was a crash course nonetheless.

After sharing their drawings with each other and comparing and contrasting them, I had the students count off into groups. They were then tasked with creating a chart that included at least one idea from everyone in the group. On the chart had to be two columns. One that said, “I use the Internet to…” and one that said, “I wish I used the Internet to….” They recorded their thoughts on the chart paper. After about 10 minutes of working, I then had each group walk from table to table to see what the other groups had written. We then debriefed and

Students brainstormed ways they use and ways they wish they used the Internet & then did a gallery walk.

Students brainstormed ways they use and ways they wish they used the Internet & then did a gallery walk.

talked about what we saw. I told them that they are in the position to make the things in their “wish” column a reality. I told them that most people use the internet for all of things the students said they did (social media, pictures, music..), but very few people actually make stuff for the Internet. I told them I want them to be makers and builders. I think they dug the idea.

Another fun part about the activity was walking around and listening to them talk to each other. “I wish I could talk to my computer.” “But you can, you can use Siri!” “Siri sucks. It’s not really talking to you.” I also overheard conversations about what they use the Internet to do and discovering common ground. Overall, I think it was a great start to the year and I look forward to digging deeper into conversations about Digital Citizenship and the rights and responsibilities that coming with going online.

 

 

 

Some ways they use and wish they used the Internet:

Internet Chart 2

Internet chart 1

 

 
Morning grade-wide meeting in the cafeteria this morning.

Morning grade-wide meeting in the cafeteria this morning.

I am so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes awake, but it’s a good kind of tired. After weeks of team building, inquiry into our own pedagogical practices, building units, discussing and working out details on school operations from scheduling the first day to student flow through the building, loading up UHaul trucks with furniture and carrying a conference table up three flights of stairs, today was the ultimate truth. The kids arrived.

I couldn’t have wished for a better first day.

There were smiles, nervous looks, timid questions and laughter. We had hiccups (including me being locked out of my classroom for 45 minutes), but it was humbling to see how all of the hard work that each member of our team has done pulled together today. There’s something unique about creating a plan and seeing it through until the end. I’ve never opened a school year with such ownership over the process.

I know that this year will not be perfect. I know that there will be times when we will not always agree on how things are done. I know that we will make mistakes….and learn from them. I also know that we are dedicated to doing great things for kids and that is the underlying force behind everything we do. I have complete confidence and trust in the team that has worked so hard to get to this day.

I am sure that the best is yet to come….

Thanks to the awesome SLA@Beeber folks:

Chris J, Diana, Dave, Luke, Karthik, Matt, Max, Marina and Leroy!

 

 
Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

Overflow crowd from the August 15, 2013 SRC meeting.

As I reflected on the events of today, I began to think of my journey as a teacher here in Philadelphia. I began to think of all of the red flags that have gone up over the last ten years before getting to this point. Here is a run-down:

2001

The State takes over the School District of Philadelphia and puts in an appointed board to run the District called the School Reform Commission (SRC), which is made up of appointees chosen mostly by the Governor and some by the Mayor of Philadelphia.

August 2002

I move to Philadelphia immediately after graduating from college. I really want to be a teacher, but am not certified.

2003

I apply to be a “Literacy Intern” with the Philadelphia School District. I am called in November and am placed at an elementary school in Southwest Philadelphia. My role is to support classroom teachers whose classrooms have gone over the legal limit. Basically, rather than hire certified teachers and make class sizes smaller, the District hired teachers with Emergency Certifications to “reduce class size” by pushing in a few hours every day.  I worked in a Kindergarten room with 34 students. The teacher only had my help for about 2 hours a day. My official teaching career in Philadelphia begins.

2004

I complete my student teaching in an unruly 1st grade classroom with a first-year teacher because my principal placed me there and learn quickly the steel and flexibility it takes to be a teacher Philadelphia. I learn that many teachers who were “vocal” in the school had been “written out of the budget” in previous years. That year, at least 4 of my colleague transfer out or quit because of the school administration.

2005

I go to the District office to pick my first official “solo” teaching job and am told that there are no more positions available in the District.  I am offered my choice of school from a list of a schools with a “high teacher turnover rate.” I look quickly at a map and pick a school.

When I arrive at my new school in West Philadelphia, I find out that the school lost 50% of their teachers from the previous year because the school was slated to enter the new (and short-lived) Corrective Action Region. With 3 positions still unfilled 3 days before school starts, I sign up to be the Science Teacher. We start the year with first-year teachers making up about 30% of the staff. During my second year, a first year teacher walks out and never comes back and never officially resigns. Myself and the other specialist teachers take turns covering the class for months.

19??-2009

Our school community inhabits a crumbling building with mold that causes asthma in some staff and a malfunctioning heating system that causes 2nd degree burns on a student who leans back on a hot radiator pipe. We survive a poor school climate with fights breaking out regularly and many unruly classrooms. We are designated an Empowerment School by the District, which means we are held under tighter scrutiny and must implement specific programs.

February 2009

Our school community goes into turmoil when we are told that our building is being demolished and that we are being relocated and have 3 1/2 months to pack up a 100 year old building. Teachers are expected to teach and pack their rooms at the same time.

September 2009 – June 2009

My students are uprooted from their neighborhood and their school to be bused from the area of 58th and Media Streets to 59th Street and Baltimore Ave. They survive being forced into many hours a week of scripted Corrective Reading and Connected Math instruction whether the program works for them or not. Teachers are told that if the students aren’t learning what they are supposed to, it’s because the teacher did not stick to the script.

Students make do as Kindergarteners are forced to use bathrooms built for middle schoolers, as 4 busses running two routes bring 600 students to school and home every day, and as elementary age kids eat lunch in a cafeteria that can seat over 500 students. Students share the building with a “no excuses” charter school and find that their former classmates are not even allowed to say hi to them if they see each other in the hallway.

As the school year progresses, student behavior deteriorates and teachers have little to no support in a huge building with which they are not familiar.

January 23, 2010

The District teachers survive the shady approval of the new PFT contract, which sells the teachers out for Race to the Top money and brings in the era of Renaissance Schools.

January 28, 2010

We are alerted through a District letter in our school mailboxes that our school is on the list of possible Renaissance Schools and could be shut down and reorganized.

March 2010

Our school community barely holds it together when our school’s name appears on the final list of Renaissance Schools. We aren’t even really sure what it means yet. There are a number of models presented to us. We eventually find out that we will be converted to a charter and will all be force transferred and have to re-apply for our positions if we decide to apply to the charter operator.

March-May 2010

Our school’s parents barely survive the convoluted process of forming a School Advisory Committee and the marketing pitches by a variety of charter operators. We do not know who will be running the school, who will be teaching our students or whether the new building would be done in time. We will never get to teach in the new building as it will be turned over to the charter operator for the following school year.

June 2010

My colleagues and I survive a number of meetings with various District staff who have no answers about the future of our jobs or our school community. We begin to pack up the building once again with no idea what the future holds.

Despite interviewing within the District, I make the hard decision to leave the District so I can keep doing what I love– teaching kids with computers. I take a 5 year Charter School Leave of Absence.

September 2010 – June 2013

While I have 3 great years of teaching, I also survive teaching with no contract as an “at-will” employee in a school staffed with a huge percentage of teachers under the age of 30 with very little teaching experience. I watch as my SDP colleagues continue to struggle with the new programs and requirements imposed upon schools and teachers by Superintendent Ackerman. I watch irate parents speak out about school closings. I watch students walk out of their classrooms in protest. I watch as the Renaissance School movement, a child of Washington, D.C.-style reform, turns more and more District schools over to “no excuses” charters. I watch as communities are torn apart by school closings and as some neighborhoods are left without a neighborhood school for their child to attend.  I empathize with their fears and frustrations and I am glued to The Notebook everyday. I watch as Arlene Ackerman is removed by the SRC and walks away with a huge severance package, leaving a huge leadership hole. I watch with hope as William Hite is announced as the new Superintendent. I watch as Ackerman’s plans continue as planned and meetings about school closings are held at schools all over the City.

June 2013

I ecstatically accept a position at the Science Leadership Academy’s new Beeber campus and am actually thrilled to come back to the District.

August 15, 2013

I attend the last minute meeting of the SRC, announced only 24 hours ahead of time, during which the SRC suspends entire sections of the Pennsylvania School Code and gives themselves all the power they need to break the union. I listen to community members and teachers tell the SRC that we can’t give our children the bare minimum, that this is a manufactured crisis and anyone who was paying attention knew we would end up here. They say that it’s unconscionable for students and their families and teachers to bare the brunt of the mistakes of others. I watch the SRC sit, stone-faced, until everyone had spoken and then proceed, without fanfare, to pass all but one of the resolutions to suspend parts of the school code. I knew, as I did in the 2010 contract approval, that the decision had already been made and nothing we said or did would stop it.

So why the trip down memory lane?

The point is, teachers, students, their families and entire communities here in Philadelphia have been on a rollercoaster of education reform for over a decade ever since the State took over in 2001 and put in the School Reform Commission. Teachers and community members have spoken out when they’ve seen problems.  We discuss them in the teacher’s lounge or in our classrooms with colleagues or with our families at home. The problems with funding and managing the District have been in plain sight as long as I have worked in it. We are not at this point solely because of students, teachers, parents or community members. We are here because the people entrusted with the financial and educational well-being of Philadelphia’s children dropped the ball in a big way. Now, teachers have been made out to be the villains for sticking up for not what is in their contracts, but language that is written in the sections of the PA School Code that were just suspended. At the same time, students have been promised the bare minimum for their education and, in turn, their futures.

My question is, can the systems in place here in Philadelphia survive another 10 years of this?

I don’t have a lot of answers. I had to write this all down just to get my head straight after all of these years. One thing is for sure, this governing body that State put in place has not done its job. The people of Philadelphia feel helpless when it comes to the education of their children. We have thousands of young professionals who have made the choice to live in the City, to have children and buy homes here. Without a safe and strong public school to send their child to, we will watch these new neighbors flee in droves. Our city depends on strong public neighborhood schools. Let us elect our own school board and take back our City schools.

I recommend you check out the post, The Crisis in Philadelphia Schools…or Not by Chris Angelini for some great ideas and thoughts on this, too.

 
Art Bots at VentureLabs MakerSpace, San Antonio

Art Bots at VentureLabs MakerSpace, San Antonio

As I prepare for the last day of my 5th ISTE adventure (and nurse the sniffles that I blame on 40 degree indoor temperatures and 95 degree outdoor temperatures), I have been reflecting on the dozens of conversations that I have been lucky enough to have on this trip. For me, this ISTE has been about making connections and sharing experiences in a way that has not happened prior. Perhaps I’ve arrived at the “veteran ISTE attendee” status of not even noticing the huge crowds or feeling the need to be at a million parties. Or perhaps, over the years, I have developed more specific interests or deepened relationships to allow for deeper conversation. Whatever it is, I will leave with a renewed sense of practice and purpose a new energy for the challenges ahead.

With all of that said, I did find that there was also a missing element to this year’s conference. I was thrilled by the large number of “maker”-related sessions and conversations, but I was dismayed that ISTE did not highlight the MakerSpace right in downtown San Antonio. I visited the VentureLab MakerSpace right here in downtown San Antonio with some colleagues and was blown away by the vision that Mark Barnett has for bringing these kinds of experiences to kids.

The missing element this week was that link between creativity and technology that Steven Johnson spoke about this morning. “EdTech” should not be solely about building fun toys that “trick” students into learning the same things they were learning before.  To borrow a phrase from Will Richardson, EdTech should not focus only on using tech to teach and learn better than we did before, but rather, it should focus on using tech to teach and learn differently.

If we unleash kids to do real problem solving with real materials and technology and allow them to experiment, fail, and try again (this is the essence of makerspaces), they will <gasp> learn skills such as perseverance, communicating ideas, prototyping, measuring, reading directions, writing with an audience in mind, along with a number of other skills related to using specific tools. This, to me, is what we need more of in EdTech. The students engaging in these kinds of experiences are walking out of high school as mature, independent and employed young adults. I look at the robotics team I spoke to today whose mentors now work for Lockheed Martin or Toyota, but used to be on the team. The high school student I spoke to said he would be working for Toyota soon but can’t wait to return to help mentor the next group of students on the team. I watched 3 teams of high school students in a live cybersecurity competition, scanning computers for viruses and checking and re-checking firewalls. The student I spoke to told me that he would have a job right out of high school doing exactly what he loved to do. 

These students aren’t using technology to do math better or learn vocabulary better, but I am 100% sure that they are using technology to make their world a better place and discovering their passions while gaining applicable skills that will help them transition into a career that they love.

I am not saying that we should stop using technology to teach and learn better, but at this point, we need to consider how technology can help us teach and learn differently. Our students will thank us for it.

 

 

Update:
On Monday, June 3rd, the Briarcliff Manor Board of Education approved their 2013-2014 budget to include slots for Briarcliff students to attend the Walkabout Program. Many thanks from Walkabout alumni and next year’s cohort of students.

Walkabout ProgramAs many who know me well are aware, I had the unique opportunity to attend the Walkabout Program during my Senior year in high school. With two week-long backpacking trips, a four week service learning project (which the students are charged with setting up themselves), a nine week career internship (again, set up by students themselves) and ten weeks of full time academics, the Walkabout Program is unlike any other experience available in a traditional high school.

The program, which started 35 years ago, has changed the lives of hundreds of young people. Where else could a 17 year old be trusted to go to a work site four days a week on their own and attend academic classes on Mondays? Where else could a teenager be thrust into the wilderness with only a pack on their back for a week in an Outward Bound style adventure that was considered “gym class?”

By the time I graduated high school, I had a resumé, had refined my interviewing skills through videotaped practice, made dozens of phone calls to companies for an internship only to be rejected and had survived two weeks in the wilderness alongside my classmates. I still managed to take AP English and act as Yearbook Editor in Chief while attending the program. At the end of the year, instead of walking a processional in a cap and gown, we stood up in front of our peers and families and spoke about our experience at Walkabout and how we had grown throughout the year. It was one of the most powerful and meaningful experiences I’ve ever had.

After 20 years of sending students to the Walkabout Program, my alma mater is looking to cut the program, along with other expenses, from the school district budget to meet the 2% property tax cap that New York State has.

As a Philadelphia educator, I am watching increasing budget cuts affect my own city as the District closes 23 schools this Fall, and will be cutting Assistant Principals, Counselors, Librarians, sports, Secretaries, support staff, Music and Art programs, leaving schools with a barebones staff and overstuffed classrooms.

To see budget cuts also affect the program that helped shape me into the person I am today is devastating.

Here is the email I sent to the Briarcliff Manor School District Board of Education, Superintendent, and High School Principal:

Dear esteemed Briarcliff Schools Board members,

I am a Briarcliff High School and Walkabout 21 graduate from the class of 1998. I was a member of the National Honors Society, yearbook Editor-in-Chief and an involved member of Art Club, French Club and Briars and Ivy.

I am currently an educator in Philadelphia with a Master Degree and four certifications. I have been named an emerging leader by two international organizations, ISTE and ASCD, and I was just named the 2013 Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of Educational Computing and Technology.

During my Junior year I chose to attend the Walkabout Program despite its reputation as a program solely for struggling students. Even my parents were skeptical at first. They very quickly saw, however, the difference that Walkabout made in me as a person and were quick to admit that they had been wrong. I cannot begin to describe how different my life would have been if I had not made that choice.

The Walkabout Program taught me how to carry myself as an adult, how to handle real responsibilities and it built up my self-esteem and confidence in a way that no other experience could. These skills have helped me get to where I am today. Of course, I was lucky to have attended Briarcliff Schools, so these experiences were partnered with an excellent academic education. However, I am confident that Walkabout gave me an extra boost of confidence and real world experience that gave me a distinct advantage over my peers.

The following statements are from the Briarcliff Schools Philosophy Statement on the district website:

“The Briarcliff Schools are committed to the philosophy of helping each child develop into a mature individual who will be a contributing member of society.”

“There are opportunities for students to participate in experiences that promote self-esteem, as well as to have students learn the limits of individual freedom.”

“The Briarcliff Schools provide a comprehensive and responsive educational program that is relevant to the individual needs of students.”

I am not sure how the Briarcliff Manor School District can uphold its decision to cut the 4 slots for students to attend the Walkabout Program when the program provides all of these things and more. Taking this opportunity from Briarcliff HIgh School students is in direct conflict with the district’s educational philosophy.

Please reconsider saving this unique and life-changing opportunity for Briarcliff students and for students around Westchester County. By pulling out of the program, Briarcliff Schools are sending the message to other districts that these kinds of programs don’t matter. Please consider the hundres of lives that have been changed by this program and keep Walkabout a Briarcliff tradition for years to come.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Mary Beth Hertz
Technology Teacher, Tech Integration Specialist
w. http://mbteach.com/

 

 

 

 
TechCamp Philly 153

Local educators and community members work to create solutions for education in Philly at the TechCamp Philly hackathon.

Just last week I helped organize and attended Edcamp Philly at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the conversations in which I took part was about what works when planning and implementing professional development. It was moderated by Kristen Swanson and Tom Murray. We were split into two teams to create our ideal professional development day. As my team discussed the format of the day, I began to reflect on the hackathons that I have attended and helped organize over the past few months. I began to see a correlation between the way hackathons are organized and how we as educators could learn from the intentional structure for doing and building that hackathons are based on.

First, you ask, what is a “hackathon?” While the name makes them seem nefarious, a hackathon is simply a group of people who come together for a shared purpose with the goal of building or creating a product, idea or solution. Hackathons have their roots in computer programming and coding, though I have attended hackathons where no technology was present, and I have attended hackathons during which teams form and create technological solutions. Hackathons, like telethons, are usually non-stop and last a few days (usually Friday to Sunday). This is not a requirement, however, as some hackathons may last only a day or even a few hours. The main purpose is to bring people together to come up with innovative solutions to every day issues in a short period of time.

This is why we need more professional development to look like hackathons. Some of the biggest criticisms of professional development is that it is often not interactive enough, that it cannot be applied to the classroom, or that there is no “end product” or “deliverable.” If we model our professional development after a hackathon, we have already squashed all three criticisms.

Our team came up with this model as our nearly perfect professional development day:

Morning

Hold edcamp-style workshops where participants self-organize around topics that interest them.

Lunch

Afternoon

Groups form based on the morning’s conversation with the goal of really delving into the topic deeply and fully understanding it in preparation for implementing aspects of the discussion and learning into their classroom that week.

Each person in the group stands up and shares his or her plan for implementing what they have learned and discussed that day with the rest of the group.

Follow up

Teams will reconvene briefly to revisit their goals and plans and share their progress at the next professional development meeting.

——

While not all professional development can be replaced by this format, the idea of self-selecting an area of focus and leaving with a concrete plan that has been shared with our colleagues creates a culture of learning, growth and even accountability to each other.

This format could even be used to come up with solutions to school-wide problems and issues such as bullying, scheduling or parent engagement.

How do you see hacking professional development working in your school?

 

 

STEM4resizedFor those of you who may have been wondering where I’ve been for the last few months, I can tell you, I haven’t been resting. Over much of the last three years I have taken on endeavors outside of Philly, but I have spent this past year entrenched in the tech community in my home city. Much of the motivation for this was my dream of bringing a student hackathon to Philly.

This weekend, that dream becomes a reality.

Back in August, I invited Andrew Coy and Shelly Blake-Plock to come share their STEM League project with a group of highly engaged and respected educators and technology folks here in Philly. After the presentation and discussion at the Science Leadership Academy, I then went on a 2-3 month binge of all things technology in Philly. Along the way, I joined up with Donna Murdoch to co-organize the Philly EdTech Meetup, connected with Tracey Welson-Rossman of TechGirlz, attended a Philly Tech Meetup, and a GiveCamp, co-hosted an amazing panel at the Science Leadership Academy, attended TechCamp, and co-hosted a Philly Tech Week event with Technically Philly, and attended (more like crashed) a few Code for Philly Workshops.

Over this time, I was able to recruit 4 amazing Philly educators and 4 technologist mentors to work with 5 student teams from district, charter and independent schools. I was lucky enough to pair up with an old friend (who also happens to be an event-planning guru) to host the event at New Foundations Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia.

Our first meeting of teachers & mentors was on April 7th at National Mechanics, and from there we hit the ground running. I am so thankful for the passionate, energetic and dedicated teachers and mentors who have been working hard with their student teams these past few weeks and I have been elated to watch each link to student work come through the @STEMLeaguePHL mentions. (A big HT to Ivan Chang for showing us JS Fiddle!) You can see what student have been working on by checking out the Student Teams page of the website.

This Friday night, students will meet their clients, local non-profits, to discuss the design and content strategy for their new site. Then all day Saturday, students will work side by side with the non-profit to build an attractive and functional website using WordPress. The websites will be judged by three well-respected members of the tech community, Mark Headd, Youngjin Yoo and Yuriy Porytko, and the winning team will win year of free hosting from the DHF. In addition, we have volunteers coming out to help with coding, set up and overall operations (feel free to stop by, wink wink).

Thanks to Comcast, we will be able to purchase food for all of our hard working teams and volunteers, and thanks to NFCS, we will have access to all if the space and technology we’ll need. Technically Philly has also been supportive, running an article on WebSLAM during Tech Week. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the guidance of the Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore.

It has been quite a ride over the last few months, but I feel closer to the heartbeat of Philly than ever before. After spending three years connecting to educators across the globe, it has been rewarding & inspiring to see the amazing work being done here in my home town.

If you’ve got some time this weekend, stop by and check us out!

WebSLAM: Philadelphia’s first hackathon for high school students

When: May 11th, 9:00am-7:00pm
Where: New Foundations Charter School, 4850 Rhawn St, Philadelphia, PA 19136

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