Jan 112013
 
tattoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me back to the radio show.

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

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.
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Long story short, a few days later, my students and I were sitting at an oversized picnic bench as Jonathan guided our programmer, C, through the ins and outs of HTML and JavaScript. It was magic. C was beaming as he told me, “it’s getting easier!” and I marveled at Jonathan’s ability to challenge C while at the same time modeling the language syntax for him. Watching the two, who are close to a decade apart in age work at solving a problem and to listen to them speak to each other in what an outsider might consider a foreign language was a beautiful thing.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: savetheclocktower on Flickr

Sep 112012
 

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.

 

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!

 

May 082012
 

photo courtesy of msr on Flickr

Across the country, many teachers are arriving to work to find banners that say “We Appreciate You,” continental breakfasts laid out in the staff lounge, and “Thank You” cards placed in their mailboxes.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never really been ‘into’ Teacher Appreciation Week.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate being appreciated. What I don’t get is the shallow outpouring of Hallmark-style “Thank You’s” that, while a thoughtful gesture, do not really make me feel ‘appreciated.’

Here are some of my thoughts on how to make teachers feel truly appreciated:

  • Have students write letters to their teacher on any random day–maybe when s/he is out sick, or maybe through a publicly placed dropbox for “Letters to My Teacher.”
  • Give teachers a voice in the school—let teachers run events and be involved in planning for instructional and non-instructional initiatives.
  • Give teachers time to collaborate with their peers in meaningful ways, whether that means through structured meetings or peer observations.
  • Ensure that teachers have enough planning time to be prepared for high-quality instruction and assessment.
  • When something new is coming down the line, give teachers plenty of notice to prepare, clarify expectations and ask questions.
  • Trust teachers to be professionals and let their strengths shine every day.
  • Highlight amazing things going on in teachers’ classrooms and share them with the rest of the staff on at least a weekly basis.

As the old adage goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Everyone loves a table of goodies and coffee and card, but it’s the actions we do on a regular basis that really make people feel appreciated.

That said, to all of my colleagues out there, I appreciate the hard work that you do, the resources and advice that you share every day and the many times you have helped me get through a tough day and made me smile.

Keep shining!

Mar 252012
 

As I reflect on my day at ASCD’s conference, I will be thinking and reflecting on a lot of topics and discussions. The one that really struck me, however, I feel I must reflect on first.

My last session of the day was one that I was really looking forward to. I am not one to easily be drawn in by big names, but I felt that with so many of them here, that I needed to attend at least one session and have my starstruck moment at the conference. At the end of the day, Carol Ann Tomlinson, the queen of differentiated instruction, presented on the connections between brain research and differentiated instruction.

I have done some reading on using neuroscience to inform the way we teach (Brain Rules, The Architecture of Learning), so this session really interested me. While some argue that we don’t have enough information about the brain to truly correlate neuroscience and learning, I think that we are silly to not pay attention to the way the brain fires during learning experiences. As Tomlinson stated during her presentation, everything that teachers do in the classroom sets off chemical reactions in the brain. If teachers have a better understanding of these chemical reactions, then we do a better job and building experiences around how the brain actually works.

First of all, Tomlinson’s session was structured in a way that allowed participants in the huge ballroom to talk and interact with each other about the session content. We had discussion ‘buddies’ that we had to identify before the session really began and we were given time after each section of the presentation to talk to our ‘buddies’ about what had been shared. This was a really powerful part of the presentation for me, as I am not a fan of ‘sit and get’ presentations, no matter how talented or famous someone is.

As far as the content of the presentation, it’s hard to know where to start. It was an incredible amount of information and ideas to digest.

One quote that really set the tone for the hour was Tomlinson’s view on differentiation itself. She said, “Differentiation is the logic of the classroom.” For all of the hype around differentiation (for better or for worse) I wonder how many people actually know what it means. It has become one of those buzz words that everyone uses, but few ever reflect on. Part of that may be because it really is a logical aspect of any reflective teacher’s practice. No successful and talented teacher can ignore the practice of differentiation in their classroom because it’s just what needs to be done.

I was also struck by the idea that students should think about class as much after they leave as they do in anticipation. My reflections here are an example of that. I was very excited to attend the session, and I left still thinking about what I heard.

While not all of the content of the session was mind blowing due to my own reading on the topic, (i.e., I already knew about the hierarchy of needs–survival comes first for the brain), Tomlinson was able to frame the research and the theory in an easy to digest, yet thought-provoking way.

I was struck by her statement that having clarity in our learning goals for students is not just for the learner, but also for the teacher. We can be as transparent as we want with kids, but if the learning goals are not transparent for us as teachers, then we won’t know what we are looking for and we cannot properly assess and educate our students.

She shared findings that the smaller amount of content that we ask kids to learn, the better, and that we need to teach big ideas because the brain needs patterns to link content. Some people call these ‘hooks’ that the brain ‘hangs’ information on. The hooks need to connect or retention does not occur.

She also referred to the teacher as a coach, similar to a football coach. The coach/teacher allows his or her students to practice, refining skills with guidance from the coach, in preparation for the big game. The better the practices, the better the players will do in the game. She argued that we need to make sure that we design the best practices for kids and that these practices use formative assessment and are not graded. Part of the grading process that hinders learning is the release of cortisol when the brain feels stressed.

I found it interesting that in the hierarchy of the brain, the main focus of the brain after survival is emotional data. According to Tomlinson, this explains why students in caring classrooms perform better than students in classrooms that tend to have high levels of emotional stress. She shared a chart that showed that there is a middle ground for the amount of challenge and stress we impose on learners and how it affects their learning.

Another interesting aspect of brain research she shared was the link between rote learning and convergent responses versus open ended, more problem-based learning that evokes divergent responses (just guess which one is occurring more often in schools). She stated that “we are legislating brain atrophy” by continuing to deny children the opportunity to engage in activities that promote divergent thinking. This kind of thinking, she argued is what is needed in the job market of the future.

For more of my notes on the presentation, you can click here.

Hopefully I will be able to reflect on my other parts of the day soon!

For more reading on the topic:

Judy Willis, Brain Friendly Strategies

David Sousa How the Brain Learns

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Coming soon: lunch with the Outstanding Young Educators and Edcamp as professional development

Mar 072012
 

photo courtesy of The More Good Foundation on Flickr

One of my favorite things to do while sifting through my Twitter timeline is to lurk in on other people’s conversations. That’s the nice thing about the tool itself. It’s like sitting in a big room and listening in on other people’s conversations. I often learn a lot.

This week I listened in on a conversation between Josh Stumpenhorst and Michael Josefowicz. Josh wrote a wonderful post about mediocrity in education, which Michael retweeted and then responded to with a link to a really powerful article,  Getting to No, which tied in perfectly with Josh’s post.

 

In his post, Josh criticizes various people in education, from teachers to parents to kids themselves for accepting mediocrity.

Teaching is what I do, and I strive for excellence in that every single day. I would be lying if I said there were not days when some of these factors get to me. Yet, I will keep teaching. I will keep pushing my fellow teachers even if they get upset with me. I will keep celebrating my fellow teachers even if it makes others jealous. I will keep challenging my administration even if it gets me into trouble. I will keep trying to get a seat at the table with the policy makers even if they repeatedly ignore me. I will keep looking at ways to make sure every student I have is given nothing but the best that I have to offer. Bottom line, I will keep teaching and keep striving to be better than mediocre and demand nothing short of that from those around me…

I wonder how many of us can say the same. How many of us are willing to take a risk, to speak our mind, to be honest with our colleagues when we have suggestions or see them struggling? In addition, how many of us are ready to take these suggestions, to talk openly and honestly about what we could be doing better?

This gets us to the article that Michael shared. The author calls attention to the difference between a culture of congeniality and a culture of collegiality. At first I didn’t think much of it, but as I read further, I realized that this is the key to what Josh’s post refers to (hat tip to Michael!). Teachers are often conflict-avoiders. We want people to get along, we want people to be happy. We also spend a lot of time with kids, and not a lot of time talking professionally amongst ourselves as adults. Most school staffs are very congenial. They are kind to each other, smile in the hallway, remember birthdays and even catch a happy hour now and then.

In some ways, however, a congenial environment can actually be toxic.

Teachers will often complain about a colleague, a policy or a routine to everyone without ever addressing the problem with the person who could help them alleviate the problem. As the author describes, if we are always worried about hurting someone’s feelings, if we are too kind or avoid conflict, then we are less likely to push each other to excellence, to probe each other about our beliefs and our classroom practices. If we do not keep each other balanced and challenge each other as professionals, who will? Sure, our leaders can definitely play that role, but the word collegial insinuates colleagues, which means change and dialogue cannot only be top-down.

Which brings me to my next question. What happens when a leadership team lacks collegiality? It is not only important for teachers to hold each other to expectations, to grow together, to ask tough questions and share ideas and question methods. It is important that our leadership in our schools avoids a culture of congeniality and embraces a culture of collegiality. Without that culture, then a school’s path will be layered with mediocrity.

What kind of culture does your school have? Do you agree that collegiality is healthier than congeniality?

Feb 032012
 

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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Feb 032012
 

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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