Jul 082016

tornadoAs I watched the video of the murder of Alton Sterling by police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and the video of the murder of Philando Castile  in Falcon Heights, MN and then watched videos of protests and then social media posts of the shooting of police from a rooftop at a Dallas protest, I got the tugging feeling that the world, as we know it, is slowly falling apart. These murders follow the bombings of multiple cities around the Muslim world, and the attack at a night club in Orlando. This doesn’t even take into account the continuing Syrian civil war, the absolute horror going on in Fallujah, Iraq, the fact that the UK just voted to leave the EU out of what appears to be some level of fear of immigrants and the refugee crisis in Europe, or the fact that we have, potentially, two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in recent history running against each other here in the US.

Sometimes it feels like sitting in the path of a tornado, watching as it tears apart everything its path.

This past school year, I had a brief conversation with two of my students, one who grew up just blocks away from me in Philadelphia, about money, success, police, drugs and the neighborhood. The conversation stemmed from a comment he made about making lots of money (it was partially a quote from a song he was singing) to which I made a comment about money not buying happiness. He told me that he would like to live comfortably and have the freedom to do whatever he wanted to do. I told him that he could still do that without needing a lot of money. However, afterwards, I thought about the idea of money not buying happiness, but buying freedom. I also wish that I had asked him how he would define freedom. Wouldn’t I love to be free from student loans, or a mortgage? Wouldn’t I love to be able to go anywhere and do anything I wanted without worrying how much it would cost? Maybe that’s not happiness, but it’s something.

I think of these two ideals–freedom and happiness–and I want them desperately for my students. I want them desperately for my own son. I want my students to have the freedom to live as adults in a world that does not fear them because of their skin color or hate them because of the person they choose to love or the gender with which they identify. I want my students to be free to be successful and happy, no matter what their name is or what religion they practice. I want my female students to be able to achieve greatness in whatever career field they pursue and for them to be able to have and raise a family without being penalized for it by their employer. I want my young black male students to have the freedom to hang out at the bus stop without being perceived as a “gang,” and for their mothers and fathers to be able to send them happily out into the world without the fear that they will never come home.

I can imagine that the world is a pretty scary place for young people today no matter where in the world they live, and I am hopeful that they can face this storm head on and stick together, work together, weather it together and rebuild from the devastation as a community. I am hopeful that the adults in their lives can guide them on that path. As I watch adults name call, yell, and retreat to their own corners on every issue that rears its head, I worry about that guidance. I am emotionally exhausted from reading social media posts, from trying to wrap my head around what is going on here. There is so much anger, so much fear. It feels as though everyone is shouting past each other. There is so much “other” in the posts and conversations I read. People talking at each other rather than talking with each other (unless of course, you agree with someone). I hope that young people can open their minds and hearts enough to at least listen to the other side.

So I guess my thoughts are strewn about, but I sit here watching the storm and wish that I could make some call to action, that I could yell loudly and be angry. And while I am angry, I’m also hopeful and despondent all at the same time, which is kind of paralyzing.

We need all kinds of voices right now. We need angry voices, we need protests, we need people calling their senators and signing petitions and working toward change in their neighborhoods, towns and cities. We also need bridge builders. We need quiet champions of change. We need to figure out how we will pick up these pieces when the storm finally passes, and we can’t do that alone or hiding in our silos or by yelling each other down. Our children are watching us closely, and our children are adding their voices to the choir. It’s our children’s future that is at stake here and we have the responsibility to guide them there. It’s a heavy load to bear, and I’m still figuring out how to carry it.

Jan 292016


My friend, Deven Black, was murdered in a homeless shelter in NYC on Wednesday night.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly when I first met Deven, though I am 99% sure that we started talking over Twitter and met face to face at Educon. I never knew that Deven suffered from mental health issues. I know that he was a kind and generous man. That he loved teaching and that his own education experiences inspired him to speak out about what’s best for kids. He shared his thoughts and ideas on his blog, http://educationontheplate.com. He was an active member of the teaching community online and pushed our thinking greatly. He won a Bammy Award for the amazing work he did transforming his school’s library and he was always learning and growing as an educator. He also had a fondness for a good beer.

I scrolled through his Facebook wall looking for clues and was saddened to see a number of posts which, in hind sight, seemed like more than your typical “having a tough day” social media posts. There were a number of well-meaning messages from many of his friends (including myself), but rarely did anyone ask “do you need anything?” or “how can we help?”

I can’t shake this feeling that we, the collective teaching community, failed. We let a friend slip through the cracks. We watched a man suffer and offered him a pat on the back instead of asking him what he needed. We posted kind words to a social media profile and assumed that was enough. According to his son, Jonas, Deven was not able to receive the help he needed to treat his mental illness. He wrote this on Facebook:

As some of you may have heard, my father, Deven Black, was killed last night at the homeless shelter where he was staying. Although he had struggled with mental illness for many years, he was unable to get the treatment he needed, and he fell through the cracks of a severely broken system.
It is hard not to hate the man who took my father away from me, but ultimately I see my father’s killer as another victim. Had there been adequate mental health infrastructure in place, this tragedy would not have happened.

Now, more than ever, is the time to have a conversation devoid of political ideology about mental healthcare in this country. We are in the midst of a public health crisis that affects everyone.
If you want to honor my father’s memory, please talk about this. Tell your friends, your family, and your legislators. Only by eliminating stigma and improving access to mental health services will we be able to prevent senseless losses like this.

Deven’s life was shaken up by his loss of his teaching job and by a fall he took down a flight of stairs that broke his neck. He shared his experiences of his surgery and recovery on social media. I hadn’t seen or heard from Deven in a while, and was completely heartbroken and devastated to learn of his death. I can’t believe that someone so loved fell through the cracks. It reminds me to go beyond thinking that posting to social media is enough. Somehow, we have let social media weaken the ties that we have with each other while also allowing us to maintain strong ties with each other. We know each other through posts and photos, but how many of us take the time to check in on each other, to go further than the 10 seconds it takes to post something online? We can’t let loved ones slip through the cracks of a broken system or slip through our arms because we are “too busy” to take the time to really find out how someone is doing.

Rest in peace, Deven. You will be missed.



Jan 052016

01052016 Tea with Teachers

I was honored today to take part in the first “Tea with Teachers” round table discussion of 2016 focused around teacher retention. While Acting Secretary John King was the host, he mostly listened and asked questions. With only an hour to discuss such an important issue in education, it felt as though a lot was left unsaid. However, I was glad to share my stories of SLA Beeber’s model of teacher leadership, empowerment and ethics of care and to hear about treating teachers as professionals, about offering meaningful, purposeful and teacher-led professional development, and about teacher preparation and school culture.

Before the conversation, we were sent materials about teacher retention policy and research that really didn’t offer anything new or game changing. In fact some of it was just plain nonsense (increase the number of students excellent teachers teach, have them lead other teachers in teaching exactly like them in other classrooms to “replicate” good teaching methods).

There was no mention in any of the materials we were sent of how to retain teachers of color and while there was the typical rhetoric of rewarding excellent teachers and firing the bad ones, there was no mention of how to grow teachers and how to help average teachers become great ones. Also, as NYC educator Brian Jones stated, the research focused on retaining the “best teachers,” but not just retaining teachers, period. This focus on the “best” teachers also brings the conversation back to over quantifying teaching and does nothing to eliminate the constraints that endless data put on excellent teaching.

Department of Education

I don’t think attracting and retaining good teachers is brain surgery. It’s similar to how many companies retain their top talent: Know their strengths, give them opportunities to shine, celebrate successes, offer opportunities for collaborating and learning with peers, provide top notch, just-in-time training, and compensate them adequately for the work they do.

So many of these factors, however, are not going to be solved by top-down policy from the Federal government. The Department of Education can set up systems and policies that support these factors, but in the end, this hard work must be done at the local level. We teachers must speak out and be vocal about what keeps us in the classroom, we need to feel safe voicing our concerns within our buildings, and just as students deserve strong, compassionate leadership in the classroom, teachers should also have the same guidance and support from their leaders (and school-based leaders also deserve strong, compassionate guidance from their district or state-level leaders!)

Just as our schools of education often fall short in preparing the next generation of teachers, educational leadership preparation programs are also failing to properly prepare administrators for the hard work of leading a staff of empowered and professional teachers. Teachers are often unprepared for the work of teaching ELL learners or students whose culture and experiences differ than their own, and administrators are often unequipped for leading teachers through this work. This enhances the gaping holes in our ability to support and set up these students for success and it leads to teacher “burnout” when that work feels impossible.

I hope to see the DOE hold up examples of schools and districts that embody compassionate leadership, cultural sensitivity, and teacher leadership and empowerment as well as strong academics. While policy may not be an option, using its microphone to broadcast what is working outside of test scores and data can still make a powerful impact and remind all of us about what really matters. I also believe that the continued support and advocacy for Edcamp-style professional development will fundamentally change how teachers connect, learn and collaborate within their schools and across districts and across the country and it will help change the culture of schools to one that trusts teachers, empowers them and taps into the shared expertise within a building.


Jul 022015
Social JusticeDefinition from Oxford Dictionaries

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

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

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

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

I have a couple of thoughts.

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

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

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

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

So what am I getting at here?

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

So why do we need to do this hard work?

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

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

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

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

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

Some social justice resources

Edudemic Social Justice Lessons

Teaching Tolerance website

Open data and Social justice (information justice)

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

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

Rafranz Davis  — where is the diversity in EdTech?



Facebook Diversity Report


Mar 142015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parenthood is hard.


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

But then I have to give pause and remember….

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 252014

SLA Beeber front It was 3:00pm on June 20th, the last day of school. The inaugural staff of SLA@Beeber sat around the huge conference table in the main office going over highlights and areas for growth for next year. We picked apart processes, events, successes, failures and made suggestions for next year. We discussed our capacity as a staff, the way our kids had grown so much since September, the way we stuck together as a staff and made some really hard decisions together. We expressed our gratitude for each other’s professionalism and integrity. We also pointed out where things went really wrong and places where we came up short, acknowledging our errors and making plans for addressing them.

Then, our principal (he would kick me for calling him that), stopped us and reminded us of something we had failed to mention for the last 30-45 minutes. “We started a school, guys,” he said. We smiled. In all of the day’s conversations about pedagogy, technology integration, processes and procedures, organizational capacity and more, it was easy to forget the simplest fact: We started a school this year.

Not only did we start a school, but we finished out a fairly successful school year in some challenging conditions. We had 9 full time staff members, including our secretary, principal and program coordinator for 125 students. We had a part time NTA for the morning, but no one at lunch to monitor students (no school police officer or lunch time support staff). We had a nurse once every 3 weeks, a counselor once a week, a part time Special Education teacher and a school psychologist once a month. Add to that the fact that two or three days before school started, we didn’t have enough chairs for all of our students, we had no furniture in the main office, only a handful of cafeteria tables for 125 students, and pretty much no school supplies whatsoever. After picking apart every little nuance of the school year and reflecting on our successes and our failures, we failed to remember that, in the end, we came together and built a school. This year was, by no means, perfect, and we have a lot of space to grow, but I am thrilled to have been a part of the team that started SLA Beeber, and I am even more thrilled to see it expand next year and watch our 9th graders advance to 10th grade and to welcome our new, incoming freshmen and our new staff members, my new colleagues on this journey.

I have never had a more rewarSuccess babyding, frustrating, demanding, celebratory year of teaching in my 10 years of teaching in Philadelphia. Thanks, Chris, Marina, Luke, Dave, Leroy, Max, Karthik and Matt as well as Jeremy, Katie, Tishna and Pat for making this year shine!

Mar 172014
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.
Mar 152014
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.
Sep 112013

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


Sep 092013
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!