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.

 
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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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My students at last year’s computer fair waiting for the judging to finish.

I have been blessed to have spent the last 3-4 months working with eleven 7th and 8th graders as they create projects for the annual PA Middle School Computer Fair. We are now only a couple of weeks away from the Fair and I can’t help but reflect on the way my role working with these students differs greatly from my traditional role in the classroom.  I  teach a Computer Fair Elective class twice a cycle, and this class is unlike any other that I teach. There are two reasons for this: 1) the students are working on 5 different projects that they developed on their own and that will conclude with a competition against other middle school students across the city. 2) the students and I work as a team to help realize their vision for their project.

While this may sound simple enough, it breaks the mold of the traditional model of having an objective on the board and everyone mastering said objective by the end of 45 minutes. When these students walk into my classroom, they discuss the next steps they need to work on and talk about who will tackle what during the period. I don’t even turn on the projector and there is no class ‘objective’ on the board. They are able to figure out what they will try to accomplish on their own and they delegate work to each other. My job is to rotate from group to group to check in and act as a consultant, making sure that students have the larger picture in mind and that what they are working on will help them meet their desired target. When they need someone to critique their design or double check their code syntax, or re-read their narrative, they ask for help. If they need to learn something, they may use YouTube or even each other. During the 45 minute period, students are working, discussing and giving each other feedback. There are little to no behavior issues and I rarely have to tell someone to “get started,” or to make sure that they are engaged or have “mastered the material.”

Things did not start this way, however.

At the beginning of the project, students had to reflect on what they worked on the last class and create a manageable goal for the class period. I worked with students to rephrase goals like, “work on project,” to “finish the buttons for the game.” I stressed the importance of choosing a goal that is manageable and attainable in 45 minutes. I also gave the students a chance to talk with each other to agree on what each person would work on before getting started. Sometimes this meant that I helped them designate and define roles for each other. It has been magical to watch how teams are now able to see how the work that each person is doing plays into the larger goal they are working towards.

Things are not always rosy, however.

This kind of learning is messy. Since I am no longer the expert in the room, when we hit a snag, students may be derailed from their goal for the day while they search YouTube for solutions or while they solicit feedback or ideas from their teammates. While traditional behavior problems are nearly non existent, we do run into normal issues that every team, no matter what age, run into. Disagreements abound when students are passionate about what they are working on. Sometimes coming to compromise can take an entire class period.

Experiencing learning in this way has been eye opening and energizing. It has also made it clear to me what real student-centered, hands-on, authentic (though I vowed never to use that word again) learning looks and sounds like.

It is messy, time-consuming and unbelievably rewarding.

 

Right now my students and I are in the middle of a research project. One of the most important things that we are delving into right now is honing our skills in evaluating websites for accuracy and bias. We did the traditional exercise of evaluating the Northwestern Tree Octopus and then I gave them the challenge of evaluating three websites about Ferdinand Magellan. Thanks to my friend and colleague, Gerald Aungst, I was able to provide them with a severely erroneous site about him as part of the challenge. As part of the evaluation process, I provided a template for them to track the evaluation process.

It was a complete failure.

The first class that attempted to use the template struggled. I reflected that the template was not detailed enough to guide the process, so the students were struggling with where to start.

So I redesigned it.

All of my classes had already received the template, so for my remaining classes, I included this slide in my lesson.

Trash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I told them that I had failed, that the original template I had designed was not effective. Then, each student crumpled up the old one and put their name on the new one. The new template proved extremely effective and students easily completed it, reaching the conclusions that I hoped they would about each site provided.

So why bother telling this story?

Too often, teachers feel that they need to be perfect, that they can’t falter in front of their students. I find it more effective to be real with my students and let them know that I am also a learner and that I learn from my mistakes. Also, in a climate of ‘no excuses’ and where failure is seen as the worst thing that can happen, it is important to model learning from failure and turning failure into success for our students.

My students didn’t flinch when I told them “I failed.” We put our names on the new paper, moved on and in the end, they were able to identify the site that was phony all by themselves, using the new template as a guide.

 

 
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L to R: Me with a photo of me at ISTE 2012, as a panelist at #140edu conference, my newest tattoo freshly finished

I recently heard a conversation on the BAM Radio Network entitled, “Teachers, Tattoos, Piercings and Provocative Dress: Fashion Anarchy vs Fashion Fascism?” As someone who has spent a large portion of her life as a non-conformist, I definitely connected with the topic. First, let me say that I believe that the way teachers dress for school sends a message to their students about how they feel about their students and how they feel about their job. I am NOT saying that teachers have to always look like they are heading to an important business meeting. Teachers need to be free to sit on the carpet, do an art project, monitor recess and walk around the classroom all day. However, we still need to keep in mind that what we wear does matter.

That said, I think I finally learned how to dress myself at age 22 when I started to realize that, as an adult, I was being judged and mistreated by other adults, who assumed that I was 16 (I look young for my age). Now, ageism could take up a different post entirely, but in a nutshell, I learned pretty quickly that what you wear matters. Even now that I know how to buy clothes that (mostly) fit me properly and shoes that match my outfits, I still have a number of tattoos on my arms and legs that, during the winter months, can be covered up by long sleeves, but in the warmer months are on display. I have often gotten looks from people who look at my tattoos and then look at me with this puzzled expression, saying, “They let you teach with those?”

Luckily, tattoos have a lost a lot of the stigma they once had. Still, these kinds of reactions are very common. But before I answer the question, let me back up a bit.

In high school, I was in National Honors Society almost every year, I had mostly A’s and some B’s on my reports cards (Except for Pre-Calculus, which kicked my butt. It was the only C I’d ever gotten.), I was yearbook editor-in-chief, I was in French Club, Art Club and I took part in 3 high school musicals (before they were cool). Needless to say, I was a pretty good student.

I also happened to have a bright pink, pixie-style hair cut, wore spikes and black eye makeup, wore clothes that I bought at rummage sales and wore nothing but sneakers and boots. From the outside, I looked like your average Goth/Metal/Punk kid. A misfit, if you will (a big wink to anyone who gets that joke). Anyone who didn’t know me would immediately judge me by my appearance. That judgement would stick until they actually had to interact with me and realized that I was a lot smarter than I looked. This trend continued when I entered Oberlin College, a place known for individuality and non-conformity. I went to school with some of the smartest, most passionate and engaging people I’d ever met. We may have looked like a bunch of crazy hippies, but we were smart, engaged, motivated and passionate students.

Oberlin, at the time, did not have a school of education, so I was not on a direct path to becoming a teacher. Though I did spend a large amount of time volunteering in classrooms, I did not spend four years thinking about what my classroom would look like or worrying about whether a school would hire me with tattoos, piercings and stretched earlobes. There are many teachers out there, like me, whose decisions earlier in life when their career path was either unclear or not clearly teaching, may have modified their bodies in some way. This does not make them unfit for the job. I would argue that there are more people turning to teaching as a second career than ever before. No one should have to change who they are and who’ve they’ve been just because they chose to change careers.

For most of my youth I was judged by how I dressed and how I looked. At the same time, once I opened my mouth, people were forced to change their perceptions. I keep this in mind when I am quick to judge young people, and I keep this in mind as an adult judging other adults. I will not pretend that I am free of stereotyping (is anyone?), but in the back of my mind I always remember that things are not always how they seem.

Which brings me back to the radio show.

I had the unique experience in high school of working four days a week in an office building, and after my freshman year of college I worked as a temp as a secretary for an HVAC company. I learned how to “code switch” my appearance when necessary (though my pink hair started to show through at my temp job as the black dye started to wash out). I learned early on the art of work clothes vs play clothes, though I’m sure that I was barely successful in pulling off “work clothes.”As a professional adult, I strike a balance between maintaining a professional appearance while also expressing my individuality. My experiences have shown me how important appearances are, but they have also shown me that it is important that professionals are able to maintain their individuality because, in the long run, what matters is how well you do your job. Honestly, if someone won’t hire me because of my tattoos, I probably don’t want to work there anyway. Instead of sending the message to our students that in order to be a professional you have to look a certain way or lose your individuality, we should be modeling for them how to do your job well, have a professional attitude and demeanor, dress the part and still be able to express your individuality.

 

A little over a month ago, fate brought me and Jonathan Leung from University of Pennsylvania together at a PhilaSoupevent. I was sitting next to Jonathan at the event and when I found out he was a Computer Science major, I began to share the details of an exciting project I’ve been working on. We discovered that we had a lot to talk about and we continued to talk about opportunities for student mentorship over email and a phone conversation. Fast forward to last week when Jonathan introduced me to the head of the Dining Philosophers the UPenn Computer Science club.

I have been working with two 7th graders on developing an educational math app for Kindergarten and 1st graders. They have been in desperate need of guidance with the programming side of the project, something I do not have the expertise to do. However, through my email communication with Jonathan, I learned that the Dining Philosophers would be holding a HackJam at a local venture capital firm, First Round Capital. During the 6 hour window, anyone could come in and get advice and feedback on any project they were working on.
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Long story short, a few days later, my students and I were sitting at an oversized picnic bench as Jonathan guided our programmer, C, through the ins and outs of HTML and JavaScript. It was magic. C was beaming as he told me, “it’s getting easier!” and I marveled at Jonathan’s ability to challenge C while at the same time modeling the language syntax for him. Watching the two, who are close to a decade apart in age work at solving a problem and to listen to them speak to each other in what an outsider might consider a foreign language was a beautiful thing.

I feel blessed to have been able to give my students the opportunity to step into a hacker space, and to experience what a”work day” might feel like. Even more powerful, C now has a living, breathing mentor who is just a phone call away when he gets stuck or needs guidance. I could have never been able to provide such a deep learning experience on my own.

Mentoring like this matters. For one, everything C had learned about coding up until today was completely on his own. School doesn’t provide him the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge that he is passionate about. Second, there are few teachers, through no fault of their own, that he comes in contact with that would even know where to start in helping him develop this talent.

It is time for schools to see that students are learning on their own and that this learning is often completely missing from their school life. It is time that schools, educators and the technology world (read: the business world) connect so that school, student passions and talents, and business leaders are all on the same page. I would argue that the skills that C is learning on his own outside of school will actually prepare him more for his future than the skills he learns in the classroom every day.

One way to make that connection is through mentoring. It is not just the students who need mentoring, either. The more educators are made aware of the skills required to be successful in today’s world and the future economy, the more likely they are to embrace changes in technology and the more likely they are to incorporate these skills into their classrooms. Teachers need mentors, too.

I was able to make this connection today through attending a local event and striking up a conversation. So the next time you are out at an event, bring business cards, ask for business cards or contact information. begin to build your own database of mentors. You never know when one might come in handy.

Photo credit: savetheclocktower on Flickr

 

This past summer, with the help of my brilliant friend, Kristen Swanson, I took my Technology Curriculum to a place I had never imagined it could go. As a computer lab teacher, there has never been an easy to follow, mapped out path for instruction. As such, over the last 5 years I created a scope of skills and concepts across grade levels to guide my teaching and I had begun to map out what kinds of projects I could use to teach these skills. Still, my curriculum always seemed a bit disjointed and while my students created wonderful work and amazed me with their ability to apply their skills to video, music production, programming and more, I still felt like I wasn’t doing the best job at making it ‘stick.’

Fast forward to today.

This summer, I put together a framework for my curriculum that ties all instruction to four ‘pillars.’ These pillars are the glue that holds the curriculum together. As I told my students, after we had defined that pillars hold up buildings, that these pillars will ‘hold up our learning,’ that everything we learn this year will be held up by one of these four ideas. I am so intent on providing a metaphorical ‘hook’ on which my students can hang their skills that the first week or so of classes will be focused on knowing and understanding these four pillars and connecting them to the technology we use in the lab and in our daily lives. While I named them ‘competencies’ in my curriculum, I felt the word ‘pillar’ would mean more to my students.

The Four Pillars of Technology in the Classroom

Today, my 4th-6th graders and I focused on first understanding the idea of a pillar and what it is, and then we got into the work of unpacking the first pillar, Communicate. Through a ‘Think, Pair, Share,’ they pulled together a definition of what Communicate meant to them. It was thrilling to watch them discuss with each other, often using hand gestures to explain the back and forth of two people talking and sharing ideas. I then gave them the ‘official definition’ as a comparison. They then repeated the Think, Pair, Share activity with the following question: “What are some technology tools we use to communicate?” We then shared a variety of tools, ranging from YouTube to Skype to webcams, to keyboards, to cell phones, and even to pencil and paper. All of this brainstorming was recorded in the note-taking template I provided for them.

After reviewing their class notes and their ‘exit tickets,’ I have no doubt that my students understand how technology allows them to communicate in a variety of ways. This is powerful. We built knowledge together and they reached the learning goal I had hoped to achieve without me having to tell them anything except for ‘think about this question and talk to your neighbor when the timer goes off.’

I can’t wait to hear their thoughts and the connections they make for the other 3 pillars. I hope that these prove to be the glue that holds all of their learning together this year.

 

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