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.
 

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

 

 
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.

 

 

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.

 
IMG_0603

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.

 

On Saturday, I had the wonderful opportunity of leading a workshop on Digital Citizenship at the National Liberty Museum here in Philadelphia. One of the most important conversations to have at the start of the day is about the meaning and importance of citizenship in general. We spent the morning coming up with a common understanding of citizenship and why it matters. This conversation provided us with a place to hang new information on various aspects of our digital lives and to put our digital lives in perspective.

I was inspired by the conversation and the deep thinking that went into the definitions the participants created.

 

 

 

What we discovered was that there are a lot of parallels between face to face citizenship and digital citizenship, though the biggest differences are based upon the tools we use to communicate.

 

 

 

 

You can read the various definitions created by the participants and make the comparisons yourself between analog and digital citizenship.

 

 

 

 

 

After we pulled some common themes from these definitions, we were able to refer to them throughout the day. Many participants reflected that this kind of conversation was something that they could easily do with their own students.


After a brief ‘gallery walk,’ the participants used stickers to vote on the definition that spoke to them the most as well as the sentence describing why citizenship matters. 

 

First of all, I have to thank my friend, Kim Sivick for sharing this awesome gadget with me.

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Today I received my Makey Makey kit in the mail and I haven’t stopped playing with it.

First, I opened the box.

Once I had it all plugged in, I immediately got some bananas and got to work.

 

I originally used the Makey Makey Scratch piano: http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/ericr/2543877

Then, the wheels in my brain began to spin. I opened up Scratch  and began to build a program.

Scratch Project

You can view it/play it here: http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/mshertz/2826339

I have only begun to explore the possibilities for this awesome tool. At $40, it might be one of the best purchases I’ve made in a long time.

 

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.

 

 

I am very excited to be attending ASCD’ s annual conference here in Philadelphia. I will be blogging about sessions and conversations I attend. Here are some sessions for today that caught my eye:

  • A lunch with ASCD’s Outstanding Educators
  • Session 1270 — EdCamp-Style Professional Development Engages and Empowers Teachers, 1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.  (a little bias here since the presenters are my colleagues from Edcamp Philly and the Edcamp Foundation)
  • Session 1214 — Having Hard Conversations 1:00-2:30pm
  • Session 1272 — The Power of Reflective Inquiry as Professional Development 1:30-2:30pm
  • Session 1302 — Differentiation and the Brain: What Neuroscience Suggests about a Learner-Friendly Classroom 3:00-4:30pm
  • Session 1318 — If We Build It, They Will Come: Strategic Curriculum Planning for Student Achievement 3:00-4:30pm
  • Session 1331 — Changing the Culture of Grading 3:00-4:30
  • Edutopia/ASCD Tweetup at the Field House 7:00-9:00pm

I know I can’t attend them all, but they all look interesting!

I’m very impressed so far with the offerings, especially in the technology realm. Kudos to ASCD!

 

 

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