WebSLAM is Here!

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May 072013

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

Mar 252013

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.

Nov 182012

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.
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

Nov 042012

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. 

Lifelong Kindergarten

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Oct 092012

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


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.

Aug 292012

The more I read about school reform here in Philadelphia, the more it feels like an episode of the Food Network show, Restaurant Impossible. For those who have never seen it, picture a professional restauranteur swooping in to turnaround a failing restaurant with his years of experience and no-nonsense attitude.

The changes that the host, Robert Irvine, makes usually include a changing of the guard, renovations of the current dining room, menu curation, tightening up of management, and more often than not, tears. Having experienced a school turnover from the inside, the metaphor really hits the mark. The first thing we found out when our school was declared a “Renaissance School” was that we were all going to be force transferred. In addition, just as Irvine renovates the dining room, the turnaround charters invest a lot of money in capital improvements as can be seen in this video of the Grover Cleveland Elementary turnaround school from the local news. The school I taught in had holes in the wall, broken heat, broken bathrooms and overall deplorable conditions. In fact, so deplorable, it was, in my eyes, a civil rights issue. Through outside funding, charter networks can make improvements that the school district never could.

In addition to capital improvements, these schools also experience a change in curriculum as well as discipline programs (their ‘menu’). The larger networks also bring in new management, most of which are highly-groomed and prepared administrators from within the network. These administrators employ their charter network’s motto, which usually includes some iteration of “No Excuses” and includes some kind of reference to “Success.”

All great changes for a school that has been continuously failing to meet its students’ needs year after year.

The metaphor falls short, however, in a few places. For one, Irvine gives each of the existing staff a chance to prove their worth as a leader or with their cooking skills. This is never the case with a Renaissance School. It is assumed that the school is failing because of the awful teachers that work there, so they all must go (and, I might add, be replaced with young, inexperienced staff). The biggest place that the metaphor falls short is in the fact that Irvine works with the current owners to fully understand their vision for their restaurant and to help them improve their own business practices to save their restaurant. Were Irvine to follow the Renaissance School model, he would strut in, fire everyone and sell the business to Bobby Flay.

Still, I’m pretty sure that Bluford Elementary is a safer, higher performing school than it was when I left it. So what’s my beef, really?

After experiencing Mastery Charter classroom management training I can say that their model is not brain surgery. They have packaged a variety of well-respected methods (imagine a formulaic blend of Responsive Classroom without the morning meetings and Harry Wong) and have provided extensive training for their teachers that includes reviewing video taped lessons with teachers. What Mastery has (and I’m sure many of the other turnaround school charter companies have as well) is the funding to do what the Philadelphia School District can’t: repair buildings, offer extensive coaching and support as well as provide highly-trained and indoctrinated administrative teams.

An unsettling aspect of this large-scale turnaround movement is the fact that, as I wrote about earlier this year, all of these schools essentially look the same. KIPP, Mastery and even Uncommon Schools use the same vocabulary (like ‘grit’), have the same college-ready focus and even use the same management techniques (acronyms like “SLANT” and “STAR” to describe what ‘academic posture’ looks like). The other thing they all have in common? They are all located in urban areas and pride themselves on offering real opportunities to urban kids.

I’m not arguing that they don’t.

But what they don’t offer is true school choice. What happens to our urban school system when every school is a KIPP or a Mastery school? What real choices will our students have? I’ve seen videos of Mastery and Uncommon School classrooms. Rows, silence, little to no group work, teacher-directed, teacher-centered instruction. These are highly-structured and tightly controlled classrooms. Which work for many kids, but not for all. I know that many of  my inner city, North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia students would blossom in a Quaker/Friends style school or a school modeled after Quest2Learn. To make matters worse, Mastery Charter just received a huge grant to take their practices to other schools around the city. The more we allow our neighborhood public schools to be turned over to these large charter networks, the less choice our students really have.

As many changes that Robert Irvine makes when he comes in to rescue restaurants in trouble, he also helps them maintain their own identity as a restaurant and empowers the owners with the tools they need to succeed. Where is that kind of support for our struggling neighborhood schools? How can we ensure that we empower our neighborhood schools to succeed and provide a variety of educational offerings that meet the desires of the community in which they are housed?

Building Strong, Self-Reliant Communities

 book review, education, reflection, teaching  Comments Off on Building Strong, Self-Reliant Communities
May 292012

In their inspiring book, Walk Out Walk On, Deborah Frieze and Meg Wheatley take their readers on a journey across the world, engaging with various groups of people working together to build agency where there isn’t any and growing self-reliant communities that defy stereotypes. So many of their stories are reminiscent of the work that I am doing with the South Philly Food Co-op and The Edcamp Foundation. Both organizations are focused around building relationships and growing self-reliant communities.

I’m only a little over halfway through the book, but I already have a long list of quotes that are reminiscent of much of the work I have been doing over the last couple of years. It is refreshing to read about people working together to make their community stronger and the stories and reflections from the individuals in these communities sound familiar and resonate deeply with me. Here are a few of the quotes that stuck out and the connections I have made to them with my own work. Since I am reading it on my Kindle, I have included location numbers instead of page numbers for the selections.

We’ll observe how their experiments move horizontally, scaling across villages and nations, trans-locally, as many diverse people learn from their discoveries and are inspired to try their own. (location 233)

This is exactly how the edcamp movement has grown. It is also how co-operatives grow, with communities popping up around an idea, building something from the ground up, and then sharing their journey with others so that they can begin their own journey.

What I’ve come to realize is what we must do is share. We know that we have everything we need; we just have to take the time to discover it. (location 1697)

Anyone who is involved in a learning community like a PLN or PLC or has attended an edcamp knows this is true. Part of the beauty of these communities is that they are full of knowledge, and this knowledge is not hoarded, it is shared with anyone who asks. This path toward discovery takes time, spans many conversations and often months. It takes time to build trusting relationships that lead to this discovery, but once they are formed, they last a lifetime.

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks to the very essence of being human…This means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means that my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. (location 1334)

After so many years talking about Linux and open source technologies, I never knew what the word Ubuntu actually meant. Now that I do, it has become one of my favorite words. It encompasses nearly all of the work that I do in education and with the food co-op.

Dana is a Sanskrit term meaning “generosity” or “giving” without any expectation of return. It’s a way of being in the world that flips self-interest on its head. (location 2303)

This is another word with no direct translation into the English language, but it is the backbone of healthy communities, and it is the life-blood of the co-operative movement.

Much of what inspires me in these stories is the way that people solve their own problems using only the resources they already have. There is so much to be learned from these experiences, especially in the current education climate of slashed budgets and the de-professionalization of the teaching profession.

I am hoping that the work I have been doing is part of a larger, global movement by people to self-organize and take ownership over their communities.

May 202012

This year my 2nd graders completed a research project about African American Athletes using videos from History.com and a public Google Docs presentation.

The students worked in self-selected pairs and picked an athlete’s name out of a ‘hat’ (it was actually a plastic beach bucket!). Over the next few weeks, they listened to the videos and took notes on facts they learned. They wrote the facts on a slide template (below) and then typed them into a public, collaborative Google Doc presentation. Once the presentation was done, I changed the settings to ‘view only.’






Once the project was complete, I thought of a comment I overheard Gary Stager make once about districts and schools saying “we’re just not ready for Google Docs.” He said something to the effect of “what, you’re not ready for word processing?” After watching my 8 and 9 year old students successfully take on a collaborative Google Doc presentation, I can’t help but think that Gary’s statement is an important one to consider. What could possibly hold a school or district back from using tools that allow students to collaborate on digital projects and then share those projects with the word, without even needing an account?

Enjoy our work!


Getting Excited for Edcamp Philly!

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May 182012

It feels like forever since I have been to an edcamp, though I have virtually attended a few through following hashtags and the opportunity to Skype into edcampMKE with some of my colleagues.

I have been more and more energized by conversations around teacher leadership, meaningful professional development. The edcamp movement has been growing, with our 100th event being held on Saturday, May 12th in Milwaukee and a successful event in Dubai on the same date.

I am looking forward to seeing old faces and new faces and to conversations with dedicated, smart and passionate educators from the Philadelphia area.

To edcamp and beyond!

A Conversation with Heidi Hayes Jacob

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Mar 292012

photo courtesy of Joyce Valenza on Flickr

When I picked up the book Curriculum 21 a couple of years ago it was very refreshing to hear what I considered at that time a voice of reason in education. I was particularly struck by Jacob’s metaphor of upgrading the system completely rather than tweaking it. I also found the website full of great resources.

I was very excited to find out that Heidi would be at the press luncheon at the ASCD conference this past weekend.

As I sat down at the table, I found that Heidi was sitting right next to me. She turned to me and asked my name and who I was representing. I told her about my blog and what I write about and a little about what I do. She asked the same of my colleagues sitting at the table. What ensued was a passionate, fast-moving and inspiring conversation about schools, innovation, connected educators and the future of the textbook.

First, I have to say that Heidi blew me away with her friendly, relaxed and passionate personality.

The conversation started with Heidi describing the three literacies that all students should have: digital, media and global. She talked about her work with Silvia Tolisano in creating globally connected classrooms. It was inspiring to hear her describe her Global Forum session in which the attendees were able to visit various countries to engage with learners.  She is a strong believer that all educators should be globally connected. It was definitely preaching to the choir. I explained how nearly all of us at the table had known each other on Twitter before ever meeting online. As connected educators, we definitely have a leg up on our colleagues.

Another reoccurring theme throughout the conversation was the new kind of teacher that is required for the new kind of learners that populate our classrooms. This led to a discussion about teachers as learners and differentiated professional development for teachers. This is obviously something that Heidi is passionate about. As she expressed the importance of self-selected PD, I was excited to hear that Heidi is familiar with the edcamp model. She emphasized that forcing everyone to receive the same information in the same way for a PD day is nonsense.

One part of the conversation that really interested me was her new Livebook.

As many of you may know, I was recently part of an inspiring Beyond the Textbook forum hosted by Discovery Education. I took part in a day of brainstorming and pontificating on what a textbook should look like, what it should contain and whether or not we even need textbooks anymore. From what I have seen (from screenshots and detailed descriptions), Heidi’s Livebook is still a book, but it’s like a book on steroids. It includes avenues for social reading, collaboration, note-taking and content that is easily updated by the author. I have not had a chance to request an advanced preview, but I definitely interested to see the interface. While I am still not 100% sure that a new kind of textbook is what educators really need, Heidi’s work on this project is an important piece in a larger puzzle.

Hearing Heidi speak about the work that she does with teachers was equally inspiring. She described scheduling a Google Plus hangout or webinar with the leaders of the staff she would be working with. This shows her commitment to getting to know the communities with which she works before stepping in to help. She also talked passionately about differentiating professional development for teachers and distributing leadership so that school leadership is a collaborative effort. She also helps school leaders eliminate meetings and turn to virtual platforms for both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration to save time and use time efficiently.

I was also struck by her statement that we should never be trying to sell anything in education. This reminded me of the term ‘buy-in’ that so many of my peers (and myself!) use on a regular basis. We need a shared vision, a compromise of sorts. Something that requires answering hard questions. I wonder how many schools are actually having those hard questions.

I was glad to have had a chance to connect with Heidi, whose work I have admired since I first read Curriculum 21. It was an inspiring conversation and I look forward to following her Livebook project.