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!

 

 
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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.

 

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.

 

 

One of the struggles of teaching a “special” is meeting the needs of over 250 students a week, sometimes for one measly 45 minute period. Differentiation in this setting is hard.

Today I won a simple but hugely important battle in this arena.

One of my 7th graders struggles to do anything independently. She is a hard worker and motivated, but with 23 students working on projects and only 45 minutes (less when you count transition times) for me to check in with each one, it never fails that this student feels frustrated at the end of class.

In steps technology to help the situation. And I don’t mean a computer.

We are building projects in Scratch, a free software that teaches kids how program. The many steps and parts of the program are hard for this student to remember and keep track of. I decided to to use the Livescribe pen I scored last year to record directions for building a simple project. I pulled the student a few minutes early to show her how to work it, and during class she was able to tap on a step number and hear me giving directions. She could pause and replay the directions whenever she needed to and she never had to wait for me. After many classes of frustration, she left class today with a sense of accomplishment.

I immediately got to work recording more directions to other Scratch projects for other students who struggle similarly. Ideally I would love to have this resource available to all of my students. It would be like having clones of myself in the classroom or like providing my students with their own personal tutor.

I look forward to finding other uses for the pen to help meet the varied needs of my students.

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One of the struggles of teaching a “special” is meeting the needs of over 250 students a week, sometimes for one measly 45 minute period. Differentiation in this setting is hard.

Today I won a simple but hugely important battle in this arena.

One of my 7th graders struggles to do anything independently. She is a hard worker and motivated, but with 23 students working on projects and only 45 minutes (less when you count transition times) for me to check in with each one, it never fails that this student feels frustrated at the end of class.

In steps technology to help the situation. And I don’t mean a computer.

We are building projects in Scratch, a free software that teaches kids how program. The many steps and parts of the program are hard for this student to remember and keep track of. I decided to to use the Livescribe pen I scored last year to record directions for building a simple project. I pulled the student a few minutes early to show her how to work it, and during class she was able to tap on a step number and hear me giving directions. She could pause and replay the directions whenever she needed to and she never had to wait for me. After many classes of frustration, she left class today with a sense of accomplishment.

I immediately got to work recording more directions to other Scratch projects for other students who struggle similarly. Ideally I would love to have this resource available to all of my students. It would be like having clones of myself in the classroom or like providing my students with their own personal tutor.

I look forward to finding other uses for the pen to help meet the varied needs of my students.

20120202-223212.jpg

 

As Obama’s inauguration approaches, I have been hearing more and more about how racism in the US has ended, is on its way out, or is no longer an issue. This unprecedented event has me thinking a few different thoughts, but not one of them includes the idea that racism is ‘dead.’

 

The election of a black president to what many consider the most powerful position in the world has inspired many African Americans and I have heard many in the ‘black community’ even stating that ‘we now have no excuses.’ The idea that this election has eradicated racism is a dangerous exaggeration. While racism as we once knew it has disappeared –separate water fountains, black face, denial of rights like voting and education–it has, instead, taken a new form. The racism I see nowadays is systemic. It is not based on individuals mistreating other individuals. It is not spoken out loud.

 

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, racism is:

1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination.

 

The belief described in the first definition often comes from a lack of knowledge. Most often, people form stereotypes and believe these stereotypes to be true when they have little knowledge of the actual person being stereotyped. This is what scares me about racism today. Stereotypes occur across racial lines, and are not always based on race (i.e. I am from New York originally. When I tell people this, they raise an eyebrow and say, “Oh, you’re a New Yorker, huh?”). It is natural for humans to create false conceptions about people they don’t know or have never met. Think of the stereotype Americans have abroad, or the stereotypes that Irish or Italians have in this country.

 

So what does all of this have to do with racism and the inauguration?

 

While Obama’s presidency is proof that we as a country have evolved and moved forward substantially over the last 50 years, it is not the ‘end of racism.’ The racism I see today is in a system that continually overlooks the underprivileged and under-represented people. As a teacher, the system with which I am most familiar is, of course the education system. The photos I put in this blog are part of a larger problem. These kinds of conditions would be considered an outrage in a different socio-economic neighborhood. In that case, race is not an issue, but rather economics. However, it just so happens that my school is 99% African American. In that case, race becomes an issue. I have not yet decided whether it is or is not racism, but it is a sign of the “racial discrimination” described in the definition above.

 

Now here is where segregation comes in. On November 14, 1960 Ruby Bridges walked through the doors of an all-white elementary school and made history. No longer would black students be forced to attend black-only schools. No longer would white students be kept apart from their black peers. Rather, they would have to learn to accept them, whether or not they respected them. I assume that many of these white students did not have any black friends, nor did they associated with black people in general. Neighborhoods were segregated, too. In this way, each ‘side’ created their own image of each other based on appearances, impressions and stereotypes. The only way to break down the hatred was to give each ‘side’ a chance to interact with one another.

 

Desegregation did not end racism. However, it did open up avenues for change.

 

What has happened in the last decade or so has frightened me. I have seen the end of mandatory bussing (a system set up to aid in desegregating schools), the re-segregation of neighborhoods, and the re-segregation of schools. As a result, schools in poor communities tend to be neglected and receive little support because the community in which they live is also neglected and receives little support. With poor performing schools, how can students in poor neighborhoods ‘make it?’ It puts them immediately at a disadvantage. Were schools to be intentionally desegregated, it would increase the range of influence of a school across racial and economic lines and create, perhaps, more equal opportunities. I’m not sure if bussing is the answer, but what is happening in many neighborhoods in Philadelphia reminds me of how neighborhoods were set up during segregation. It’s almost like we’re moving backwards again. This racial segregation and discrimination through poor education is where racism lies today.

 

In addition, as I mentioned above, my students go to a school that is 99% African American because they live in a neighborhood that is 99% African American. For many them, their teachers are the only white or non-black people with whom they interact. For that reason, they have many false stereotypes about white people and white culture based on what they see on television, in movies and on what they hear from others. On the other hand, there are schools elsewhere (many of them also in poor neighborhoods) in which students never come across a person of color, and therefore have their own stereotypes as well. This is how hatred and racism start. Through sheer ignorance. This effect is easy to see when I show my students a picture of children who are from another state (Eeww! They’re ugly!) or another country (Hah hah! Look what they’re wearing!) who do not look like my students. It’s frightening. While our world gets smaller and smaller, it is important that these future adult citizens accept others and be able to respect those who do not resemble them in culture, color or language.

 

I’m not sure what the solution is to these issues, and I don’t pretend to have any. However, I hope that Obama’s presidency will serve as a catalyst for young African Americans to dream big, put down guns and pick up books. This cannot happen, however, without a focus on the problems surrounding our failing schools and a failing education system. Without education, many poor children are left empty-handed and turn to guns, violence and crime. The decrepit and dysfunctional schools that exist in poor communities is a form of systemic racism as well as fuel for the fires of hatred, ignorance and misunderstanding.

 

Click here and here for photos of my school.

 
A hole in the wall at school.

A hole in the wall at school.

So, I decided to start this blog after 4 long years of teaching in a school that is literally crumbling apart every day. From days when it was 60 degrees in my classroom, to days when my outlet falls out of the wall and I have to (no joke) tape it to the wall, to days when the radiator leaves a steaming puddle of water all over the hallway.

I am outraged and saddened by the way my school building has been neglected. Moreover, I am outraged and saddened by the fact that this neglect reflects a larger picture. My students are neglected.

How can a student take pride in his or her school and feel comfortable and proud to come to school everyday when he or she might as well go to school in a broken down factory from 1950? I remember Jonathan Kozol speaking to this effect (though I can’t remember if it was Savage Inequalities or Death at an Early Age). My students deserve better.

More on this later….

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