Social JusticeDefinition from Oxford Dictionaries

This past week I have been spending a lot of time with some really smart educators from all over the country. While the premise of this convening was the enormous edtech conference, ISTE, I spent less time talking about tech tools and awesome apps and more time talking about equity, school funding, current events and the trajectory of education in the US.

On Monday, I sat on an engrossing panel with some of my colleagues talking about project-based learning (PBL) and my friend, Tom Whitby spoke about how many teachers who are successfully implementing PBL are 6 months ahead of the current conversations in education. For some reason, that comment stuck with me and I began to reflect and think about the attendees at conferences I attend, the people who attend my sessions, the people who organize events I go to and the people who design and sell the flashy tech tools that schools adopt and use.

On both of the panels I was on the conversation moved at some point to specific apps or tools. While we made sure to focus on the whys and the hows that must come before adopting a tool, it seems that, often, people are looking for a tool or a device to be a “silver bullet” (to paraphrase Josh Stumpenhorst’s closing keynote on Wednesday.)

I began to wonder–why is it that some educators are thinking about these bigger ideas and some are not? Amanda Dykes refers to these big thinking educators as “rebels” in her most recent post. Like her, I often find myself in the crowd that asks persistent questions, that offers another side to the argument, that asks the fundamental question of “why” on a regular basis.

I have a couple of thoughts.

Teachers often become teachers because they were good students. Good students sit and listen and follow the rules. Good students trust the adults and the information they are being presented with. Good students ask the right questions, not always the hard questions. Essentially, good students play the game. These good students then enter a system (the teaching profession) that also rewards those who follow the rules and play the game.

From this I conclude that teachers are not often asked to push the envelope, to ask hard questions, to reflect and question their own practices on a regular basis and they may not take that initiative on their own. Specifically, at a conference like ISTE, these teachers often see the potential for tech to enhance, improve, simplify what they are already doing in their classrooms. There are few sessions at ISTE (and I’d argue many other education conferences) that delve into that fundamental question: WHY?

What I have noticed over the last few months as the school year came to a close was a lot of conversation around topics like police brutality, racism and inequality. This has been a Spring full of events that are hard to ignore. They have forced teachers to decide, “Will I address these events with my students? If I choose to, how can I address them without risking backlash from administrators and parents?” Many teachers may not be accustomed to or comfortable with approaching hard topics with their students.

At our Edutopia bloggers summit this past Saturday, we brainstormed future blog post topics and one of the largest groups formed around social justice. Three excellent Ignite presentations on Sunday centered around topics of social justice, including a call to action for all students to be given the opportunity to succeed, for us to listen to our students and for educators to embrace and encourage the diverse students in their classrooms. When asked what the biggest challenges to integrating technology into PBL were I answered, “access.” The sad part is that much of this conversation isn’t new. Back in 1991 Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities compared the schools in Camden, NJ with those only a few miles away to show the inequities that existed in public education. Sadly, those inequities still exist more than two decades later.

So what am I getting at here?

Basically, education inequalities have not changed. Teachers tend to keep their head down and stick to the game plan. Current events involving police brutality, racism, terrorism, marriage equality, the Confederate flag, and a continuing lack of diversity in the huge tech companies that permeate our lives are hard to ignore. It’s easy to just plow through our day, business as usual. It’s harder to take a step back and reflect, to find our place in the world, to face our own prejudices and privilege, to decide where we stand on these issues and events. Once we’ve done that hard work, we must decide how we will ask our students to so. If you know where you stand and you have acknowledged your own shortcomings, misunderstandings and worked through them, then you are ready to lead your students through that same process. You are ready to ask that fundamental question: “Why?”

So why do we need to do this hard work?

When we put technology into the hands of our students we say that we are preparing them for life outside of school, that the world they live in is filled with technology and they need to know how to leverage it. The world they live in now and the world they will live in is also filled with hate, injustice, greed, and violence. How are we preparing our students for that world? More importantly, how can technology be leveraged to make the world a better place?

I have always grappled with activism and the teaching profession. While I believe that it is a teacher’s job to open the world to his or her students and to help students better understand the world, I don’t believe it is my job to judge a student’s beliefs and tell them to change. It is my job, however, to ask hard questions and to guide my students down a reflective path to make their own decisions and form their own opinions based on research and dialogue, not assumptions and hearsay.

A teacher as activist helps students grapple with their own experiences and emotions, to take a stand, to stand up for what they believe in, and to act. As Dr Robert Dillon says in his Ignite presentation, “We have to break the cycle of being shocked, having sympathy and then returning to the privilege that we all experience in our lives.” Schools are often stuck in this cycle. Once the shock has worn off, there are tests to take, units to plan, papers to grade…..

I am still exploring these hard questions for myself. I look at my son, a middle class white male and know that he will be awarded opportunities based on those three qualifiers alone. How will I address privilege with my son? Having taught in Philadelphia public schools for over 10 years I am not blind to the inequities that exist across this city, where zip codes define socio-economic status. How will I avoid accepting the status quo and how will I impart that on my students?

Jose Vilson asked during the bloggers summit about how he can incorporate Social Justice into his Math classes. We should all be asking that question about our own classes. It is becoming more apparent that teachers are seeking resources and avenues to address the issues our students face and see on TV every day. At an edtech conference of over 10,000 people these quests may have flown under the radar. But maybe it’s because we failed to ask the right question: “Why?”

Some social justice resources

Edudemic Social Justice Lessons

Teaching Tolerance website

Open data and Social justice (information justice)

Pernille Ripp— student voice – processing recent events in the classroom

Dr. Robert Dillon — what’s really important? How do we use shiny tools to make big waves?

Rafranz Davis  — where is the diversity in EdTech?



Facebook Diversity Report



It has been almost a year since my last post here. What a year it has been….

NoahAs many of you know, I had a son in July. Since then, my whole world has revolved around him and managing being a mom and a teacher. Anyone who is a teacher or knows a teacher, knows that a teacher’s job is never done. Before school, around 5:30 am, I am double-checking my lesson plans, answering emails and eating my breakfast while watching the baby monitor and the clock on my computer as I try to cram as much stuff in before Noah wakes up around 6:00 am.

During the day I am teacher, advisor, friend, colleague, sounding board, problem solver, technology guru and many other roles. When I get home, I try very hard to put those roles aside so I can be Mom to my son and wife to my husband. However, my evening is often filled with emails from staff and students, sometimes texts from advisees and, of course, the inevitable assignments to grade and lessons to prepare for the next day. Most nights, I am up until 11:00 pm making sure that I am all caught up for the next day. Up at 5:00 am, asleep by 11:00 pm, repeat.

I was always told that becoming a mother would change me as a teacher. That I would be a different kind of teacher because now, I had a kid of my own.

I’m not sure that I have become a different teacher, but I can say that I have a much deeper understanding of the families I work with.

In general, I have always believed that every parent wants the best for their child. I have seen a variety of parenting styles and I have worked with a diverse range of parents across the city in my decade of teaching here in Philadelphia. Being a mom has, if anything, given me insight into these families in a way that may not play out in the classroom, but that plays out in the relationships I have and build with families.

Parenthood is hard.


Some days I don’t know how I survive. I work full time during the week, and my husband stays home with Noah and works full time on the weekends. We rarely get to spend time together as a family and we both work very hard. We have less income than we did before Noah came and yet our expenses have gone up.  I often text with other “mommy friends” of mine about struggling with naps, with night time wakings, with whether we should be feeding our kids X, Y or Z, whether they are crawling yet, have teeth, or are hitting other developmental phases.

But then I have to give pause and remember….

We don’t have the cost or the logistical burden of sending our kid to daycare. I am lucky enough that when Noah wakes up, once he is fed and clothed, I can pass him to my husband as I finish getting ready for the day. I have a job that pays me a salary, gives me sick leave, personal days and health insurance for my entire family. I own my house. My husband and I both have cars. Our son has everything he needs (and more) and he is safe and secure at home. I have chosen to breastfeed, which means we have saved hundreds of dollars on his food. My Mother in Law comes over every Friday to watch him, giving John a chance to go to work and me a chance to schedule things like haircuts and even birthday dinners.

I try to remember to count my blessings. This helps me put my struggles in context of the struggles that many families in our city go through, many of which I will never experience. I have a new found respect for mothers who work full-time and raise their children without the help of a spouse or who support their family through a job that pays hourly wages and/or does not offer health insurance.

Motherhood is hard. Fatherhood is hard. Keep this in mind every time a parent cannot make a report card conference or needs to reschedule or when a child is struggling and it seems like the parent is not responding adequately. We need to hold our parents and families accountable, yes, but we also need to understand the real life struggles that individual families go through every day.

The only way to truly understand these struggles and to meet families where they are is build relationships with families. Every family is unique. Get to know your students’ family. Get to know their idiosyncrasies, talk about their children, about their hopes, their dreams. Work with them to support their child.

Parenthood is hard. Teaching is hard. Collaboration is key if we want our students to be successful and happy.

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.

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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



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


discoveryedI am thrilled to have been invited again to Discovery Education’s Beyond the Textbook discussion at Discovery’s offices in Silver Springs, MD. Last year’s event was an inspiring and energizing experience, and I am excited to continue this conversation a year later.

A lot can change in a year. One of the biggest disruptors I see in the text/techbook realm are MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses). These courses, which can have thousands of students enrolled in them, are usually free and are built from online resources of all types, including video, screencasts, online articles, PDFs, slide presentations and audio recordings. Professors for these courses create their own units and course content while also sourcing from free content online. This is very similar to the way many of us at last year’s event imagined a digital textbook. We discussed a kind of portal for students and teachers that could be easily customized with free content. MOOCs have taken that concept and expanded them to thousands of students across the world.

While we have come a long way toward that vision of teacher curating their own courses from online resources, I have not seen the textbook industry transform their vision of their product to meet this changing learning ecosystem. A comment on fellow attendee, Frank Noschese’s, blog post on the Techbook refers to a site called Net-Texts. This iOS app essentially allows users to access open courses through their iOS devices. Frank brings up what is, for me, the most important aspect of any re-imagining we do for the traditional textbook. He stresses that textbooks need to be more than just consumption tools. I, too, worry that as textbooks get more ‘flashy’ by going digital, they will just continue the trend of students consuming rather than creating content. I am even more concerned by the quickness with which textbook companies have been regurgitating the same kind of texts and stamping them with “Common Core Ready,” as if that makes them bright, shiny and new.

I learn tons from doing internet searches, watching videos and reading books and articles. Most of the time, the reason I am accessing content is because I am grappling with something and I have hit a wall in my understanding of it. As a learner, I don’t access content in a vacuum. I might need to know how the compressor on my fridge works because everything in it is frozen, so I look up the make and model of my fridge and check out some of the diagrams and troubleshooting tips. Or, I might be wondering if the article I’m reading is giving me a trustworthy portrayal of an event or a concept, so I seek out articles and books on the topic. I might need help with the vector drawing program I am using, so I seek out an online video tutorial. This is how most of us learn once we leave school, there are many students still in school who learn this way outside of school, and a small percentage of students learn this way as part of their every day school experience. Very rarely, when students want to learn something, do they say, “Hey, I bet there’s a great textbook on this somewhere!”

All of the learning experiences I describe above were directly related to a real world problem. The learning led to solving a problem. Learning that is tied to experience and real world application is learning that sticks, and learning that sticks is often non-linear. For that reason, the non-linear aspect of many existing digital books is promising since it allows learners to access content whenever they need it rather than following someone else’s sequencing of content. Think of the many times a teacher you had assigned chapters out of order or skipped some all together. Content should be accessed when it is applicable to something tangible.

The text/techbook of the future should include the above considerations in its design. It should be modular to meet the learner’s needs. It should be tied to experiences and chances to apply learning in real world ways. I imagine a techbook looking like a science notebook or journal. It would be a place where students can take notes, pin articles and videos, record experiments and discussions or lectures, organize data tied to these experiences sketch out ideas in words and pictures, and send and receive emails or other messages. Articles should have highlighting capabilities, and the ‘book’ should have a built-in, editable glossary. All of the content within the ‘book’ should also be shareable with classmates or teachers. Most of this technology already exists in some form. I often find myself using a number of apps or tools to do all of the tasks that I need for working and learning. What would be truly innovative and useful for learners is to create a device or platform in which these functions are all in one place, and in which learning is constructed through content that is closely connected to real world experiences and often created by the learner.

To follow the conversation about the future of the textbook, follow #BeyondTextbooks on Twitter.

You can also share your vision of what a “techbook” could/should be below.

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