Monday, December 30, 2013

Talking Education on the David Madeira Show

This morning I had the enjoyable experience of being a guest on the David Madeira Show, a local morning talk show in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  It was my first live interview, and despite my nerves at the beginning, it really was a lot of fun.  We're always critical of ourselves when we see video or hear audio recordings, and listening to the interview for me is no different.  I "ummed" and stumbled over words a bit more than I would have liked, and committed a few grammar sins.  Despite that, I think I did a pretty decent job of getting a few points across.  Since he invited me to come back on the air after the trip to D.C., I'm going to assume that I did alright.

I'm happy that being a PAEMST recipient is opening these opportunities to me.  For years I've been writing about the need for non-standardized student-centered learning in schools and it's nice to be able to share that now in other ways.  I'm appreciative to David for having me on the show and for the kind words he spoke before, during, and after the interview about me.

After the interview David also referenced my post explaining why the Common Core State Standards Initiative puts our educational focus on the wrong things and actually prevents students from being prepared for colleges and careers.  I hope that people listening were intrigued enough by the conversation to check out the post.

While I was doing the interview I recorded the live stream using Garage Band.  You can listen below.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Live Interview on the David Madeira Show

This morning I accepted an invitation to an on-air interview about winning the PAEMST award on Monday morning, December 30th, with David Madeira on his morning talk show.  I'm appreciative for the opportunity and looking forward to talking with him about education.
David Madeira

You can listen to his show by streaming it live from his website, or by tuning in to 94.3 FM in the Scranton, PA area.  His show airs on weekdays from 6-9AM.  I'll likely be on during the 7 o'clock hour. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

I'm Going to Receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST)

The last twenty-four hours have been a whirlwind.  Yesterday the White House put out a press release naming me and 101 other elementary math and science teachers as 2012 PAEMST recipients.  Sometime in the next few weeks I'll be traveling to Washington D.C. for several days of professional development planned by the National Science Foundation, a photo opportunity with the President of the United States, and an award banquet where I'll receive my award.  Since I found out last evening my phone has been ringing off the hook, my Facebook page and Twitter feed have exploded, and I've received a ton of text messages with friends, family, and colleagues offering their congratulations.  I am humbled and appreciative of every one of them.  While I'm excited and thrilled at the experiences that are upcoming, I know that without the support of my friends and family, the professional growth that has come with having an great online PLN, and the incredible colleagues that I am blessed to work with every day at the Wallenpaupack South Elementary, this never would have happened.

I want to record this process here on my blog for two reasons.  First, it's going to be an incredible journey.  I can't wait to meet the other winners when I travel to Washington D.C. and to add them to my network of amazing teachers that I learn from and with on a daily basis.  I want to keep track of everything that happens so that I can look back on it later.  Secondly, during the past year and a half since I found out that I was a finalist, I've sought out information on PAEMST winners many times.  There's not a whole lot out there.  A few past winners have recorded their experiences in blogs, and I was very appreciative to be able to learn from them.  So, for all the future finalists and winners who are seeking information, I'll do my best to share my experiences for you as well.  Over the next few weeks, I'll create a page where I share everything I have from the lesson I had videotaped to submit during the application process through the trip to D.C.

I was nominated for PAEMST back in the fall of 2011 by my principal at the time, Nancy Simon.  Even though I was honored to be nominated, I almost didn't apply.  As teachers, we always have so much going on, and when Winter Break rolled around that year, I hadn't even looked at the application yet.

After break I decided to go ahead with the application process.  It was grueling, but provided for great self-reflection.  I probably recorded 3 or 4 different lessons before I settled on the one I submitted.  The written part of the application was extensive, too.  It was limited to 15 pages with 10 pages of supplemental materials, but I found that after trying to answer all the questions thoroughly I was over by several pages.  It took quite a bit of creative editing, word replacement, and formatting to fit the guidelines.  I ended up using every line on every page.

Luckily, I had several people that I knew in both my online PLN and in-person who were either past winners or uber-experts on math pedagogy to read over my paper.  I'm so appreciative to them for reading over my application and giving me feedback.  They all told me that I had a really strong chance at winning, but I knew the odds were against me.  After all, there had to be hundreds or thousands of people submitting applications in Pennsylvania, right?

At the end of the 2011-2012 school year I found out that I was selected as one of three state finalists in Pennsylvania for the math portion of the award.  Three others were finalists for science.  Even though the National Science Foundation can choose not to give an award to a state if they don't believe any of the finalists warrant recognition, I was pretty excited to get that far, and that I had about a one in three chance of winning.

Then, the waiting began.  From the past winners to whom I had spoken, I knew that I would be getting a request for a FBI background check around New Years if I was a winner.  When January came and went, I figured I hadn't won.  By March, I figured there was no chance.  I was disappointed, but thrilled that I had at least been chosen as a state finalist.

Around the end of July I stumbled upon a tweet from someone using the #PAEMST hashtag stating that nobody had received FBI clearance requests yet.  Maybe I did have a chance!  I tried to keep myself from getting my hopes up.  People around me kept telling me that I still had a chance.

I got the FBI clearance request from the Office of the President during the last week of July.  It explicitly stated that I could not notify anyone except for my immediate family that I had received this request.  I had a pretty good idea that I was a winner at that point, but there's always that doubt until things are official.  The National Science Foundation sent new requests via e-mail for information, a headshot, and answers to essay questions for the awards booklet.

Then, nothing happened.  September passed.  Then October and November.  There was no word.  Every once in a while I would start to have doubts that I had won and I'd do a Twitter search for #PAEMST, or a Google search for "PAEMST 2012" to see if anyone else had heard news.  Of course, nobody else had heard anything either.

Yesterday I left school around 3:10 for the weekend thinking about the errands I had to run and the Christmas shopping I still needed to finish.  PAEMST was the last thing on my mind.  Around 5:30 I happened to check Tweetdeck to see if anyone had responded to the tweets I sent earlier in the day sharing pictures and videos of the Global Kidwish Project in which some of our classrooms had participated and green screen videos our special education students had made using the DoInk Green Screen app on the iPad.  What I found instead was a tweet from a Scranton Times-Tribune reporter congratulating me on my "National Award" and asking me to give her a call.

My heart started racing.  Some searching on the internet led me to the press release I linked above.  I knew I had won.  I shared the press release on Facebook and Twitter.  I checked my school e-mail and found that the National Science Foundation had sent me a congratulatory e-mail around 3:30, just after I left school.  After playing a little phone tag I did get a hold of Sarah at the Times-Tribune, and she wrote a wonderful article that was run in this morning's paper.

The response has been truly amazing.  The kind words and outpouring of congratulations have left me watery-eyed many several times.  It is truly a blessing to have such wonderful friends, family, and colleagues.

In the upcoming days I'll share the video lesson that I used for the application and anything else I can find or remember from the application process.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Serendipity! The EdTech Chat 'n Chew Podcast

I’m often amazed by how often the Universe provides serendipitous moments at just the right time.  Despite being a firm believer in the philosophy of “we’re always where we’re supposed to be”, I still get a kick out of the way perceived missed opportunities often turn into defining moments of growth.
One of the best examples in my career was about 3 years ago when I put in an application to move into the ranks of administration.  I went through the interview process, thought all went well, and then was disappointed to learn that the positions for which I applied were filled with others.  It ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me.  The following year I was asked to present at two state level conferences, started teaching the graduate courses that have become such a source of growth and learning for me, and was chosen as a state finalist for the 2011-12 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (winners still haven't been announced).  Most importantly, those things allowed me to discover that teaching is my true passion, that I belong in classrooms rather than boardrooms, and that I can make the impact I want to make without moving into administration.  I’m not saying I’ll never make that jump, but right now I can’t imagine being in a job where I love what I do more.

I mention this because another of those serendipitous moments seems to have happened this year.  After teaching 5th grade for 16 years, my position was eliminated due to our enrollment.  We needed one less 5th grade teacher, and I was the least senior.   I stressed a lot last year because I loved teaching 5th grade.  My district administrators were great, though, and created a position they felt would best utilize my skill set.
Since September I’ve been working as a Curriculum Support Coach.  I get to work with teachers and students to do really amazing things.  Some of my time is focused on integrating technology.  Sometimes I get to work in math classes.  Some teachers bring me in to help them develop project, problem, and inquiry based lessons.  All of it seems to be pushing the boundaries of what we have always done in schools.
There have been bumps.  I miss having my own classes and students.  I miss the relationships that were developed over the course of the year, and the ability to implement a great idea that comes to me on the spur of the moment.  I miss the tangents and moments of spontaneous learning that occurred in my classroom.  To be honest, even though my days were spent doing amazing things this year, I wasn’t sure I liked this new job until recently.
What changed is the Facebook message I received from Dyane Smokorowski, last year’s Kansas State Teacher of the Year, about a month ago asking me to join her, Andrea Keller, and Karen Wright-Balbier (two outstanding instructional technology specialists) in putting together the Kidwish Project.  It has been such a success, and we enjoyed working together so much that the four of us decided to launch the EdTech Chat ‘n Chew Podcast to share the amazing things that each of us are doing in our schools and districts.
Those of you who read this blog know how much I believe in professional networking, personalized professional development, and sharing successes and failures with others to allow them to learn from your experiences.  This podcast will be a vehicle for teachers to do all of that.
Our mission is to record weekly episodes of about 15 minutes – perfect for teachers to be able to listen/watch during their preps or lunch breaks.  We’ll be sharing some of the amazing things we are seeing and doing in the classrooms in which we are working and ideas for empowering students in the 21st Century.
Collaborating with these three amazing women has made me feel that I’m where I’m supposed to be.  I really believe that this podcast and the community of listeners and collaborators that we hope to build are going to make a huge difference in this time when those who are trying to create student-centered, technology-rich, innovative classrooms are swimming upstream. 
Below, I am embedding our first podcast episode along with links to the podcast’s website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.  Subscribing to our YouTube channel will allow you to make sure you don’t miss an episode.  Show notes from each show with links to the resources we discuss will be posted on the website.

EdTech Chat 'n Chew Podcast Website:
Facebook Page:
YouTube Channel:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Global #Kidwish Project

"Great moments are born from great opportunity." - Herb Brooks
It's been an incredible week.  Every week seems pretty incredible since I switched jobs this year from being a 5th grade teacher to a Curriculum Support Coach.  I still often miss having my own class and being able to act on moments of serendipity without having to convince someone to let me borrow their students, but it's exciting to have the job of helping teachers and students do awesome things every day.

This week was exceedingly incredible, though.  First, I was able to work out the details with our local newspaper, The News Eagle, to allow our 5th grade students to start writing blog posts for their website.  The paper was looking for the perspectives of students in the area, read the blog posts our students have been writing, and asked if we could partner up.  There's no better way for our students to learn to write than to actually be journalists, so we were happy to accept.

Next, after about a month of research and planning, the our 5th grade students put on their first US History Living Wax Museum.  Each student researched a figure from early American History, wrote a monologue in the first person, and came up with a costume that was as historically accurate as possible. We invited younger students and community members.  Each student stood or sat frozen until "activated" by a visitor.  They then came to life and delivered their monologue before freezing again.  It was a whole lot of fun, our students learned a great deal, and the comments from our visitors were overwhelmingly positive.

The most exciting thing about this week is the launch of an fantastic global collaboration project that I have been lucky enough to be working on with three absolutely amazing teachers from across the country.  A few weeks ago Dyane SmokorowskiAndrea Keller, and Karen Wright-Balbier contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in collaborating on a project intended to connect classrooms.

One of the great things about being a networked educator is the inspiration that comes from seeing the things that others do with their students.  Having been connected to these teachers for years, I was so excited and humbled that they thought of me to help out with this.

Our intention is to connect regular ed, special ed, special needs, and mainstreamed classrooms across North America so that students can share their wishes for 2014 with each other.  They'll do this by exchanging holiday cards and meeting face-to-face to share their wishes via videoconference.

I believe that school should be less about what you know and more about what you can do to make a difference.  Instead of telling students to sit down and listen, we should be empowering them to stand up and facilitate the change they want to see in the world.  Instead of complaining about what's wrong, I want my students to start becoming the members of society that make things right.

My hope is that this project is a way to help students start those conversations.  If the four of us can assist teachers all over the world in helping their students share their wishes and dreams for the upcoming year, maybe those students and teachers can start making them come true.

To learn more about the 2014 Wishes Project, and to sign up, visit the website we created.  You'll find information about the project, a map of classrooms that have already signed up, and possible extension opportunities.  If connecting with other classrooms like this seems overwhelming to you, don't worry.  We're going to help you with whatever you need to make this successful.

I opened this post with a quote from Herb Brooks, a hockey coach most famous for guiding the 1980 USA Olympic team to the gold medal in the Lake Placid Olympics.  Great moments are born from great opportunity.  I know what an amazing opportunity this is for our students.  I can't wait to see the moments yet to come.  I hope you'll join us.

Monday, October 28, 2013

"College and Career Ready" is the Wrong Goal

Anyone having anything to do with education has been bombarded lately with information about how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are going to fix what's wrong with American Education.  This national curriculum is supposed to ensure that every student who graduates from an American high school will leave prepared for either college or a career.  On the CCSS website, this idea is clearly written into the mission statement for the standards:
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.
The problem is that focusing on "college and career readiness" is the wrong goal.  Worse, it's a goal that will ensure that less students are prepared for college and/or careers. 

Let's break down that mission statement.
  • The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.
This sounds great, but it's founded in a false belief that anybody can predict what stuff kids will need to learn to do the jobs of the future.  We don't know that.  Nobody does.  Our current elementary students will graduate seven to thirteen years from now in the years 2020 through 2026.  Think about this.  Seven years ago, smartphones like the iPhone and tablets like the iPad didn't exist.  Could anyone back in early 2007 have envisioned how mobile technology would change the workplaces we have today?  What makes us think that we can predict what the workplace of 2020 will look like? 

In December of 2012 Forbes Magazine came out with a list of the top 10 skills that 2013 employers were looking for in employees.  Almost all of these qualities were not content based.  They were not skills that could be neatly written into standards.  These are traits like "critical thinking" and "complex problem solving" that require experience with solving real world problems.

And proponents of CCSS will tell you that those standards are designed to do just that.  But they aren't.  They can't do that.  Because CCSS are designed to be used to judge children, schools, and teachers on standardized tests.

So, here's what's really happening instead of that experience with solving real problems.  School districts are rushing to buy textbooks that are aligned to CCSS so that students can pass those tests.  Teachers are being told not to stray from teaching the lessons in those textbook programs so that students pass those tests.  Students are being taught how to pass those tests.  Nobody ever solved a real problem in their community by working out of a textbook or workbook. 

Here's the truth:  Focusing and measuring what students know will always prevent you from focusing on what students can do.  And they can do amazing things if we'll let them.
  • With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.
I don't think anyone can argue with this.  I just don't believe that CCSS is the best way to prepare students for the future.  And I certainly don't agree that this is should be the end-goal of education.

Instead of focusing on preparing students for "college and career", we should be preparing them for life.  Heaven knows, there are plenty of people who were successful in college and/or are successful in their careers that are miserable.  How many times have we heard about wildly "successful" people who, when we define success as more than "how much money you make", aren't? 

We're missing the forest by focusing on the trees.

So, instead of preparing students for college and career, I propose that we prepare students for life.  Teach them how to think for themselves.  Teach them how to solve real problems in society.  Teach them to come up with creative solutions, to make a difference, to experience the joy of being kind to others, to leave their communities better, and to advocate for the things they feel passionate about. 

Instead of discussing a list of things our students need to know that was lobbied for and developed with money from large profit-driven corporations (that may or may not have our children's best interests at heart), imagine if teachers all across the country spent professional development time discussing project, inquiry, problem, and service based learning projects that allow our students to learn content while also learning the very things that will help them succeed in an unknown future.  Imagine if our focus was on student learning instead of "standards implementation".   

The beauty of this goal is that, along with leaving students prepared for life in ways that our increasingly narrowed curriculum cannot, it will also prepare our students for their futures in every way possible.

Teach them to think for themselves, to love learning, to problem solve, to innovate, and to connect with others, and there will be nothing they cannot accomplish.

They'll even be prepared to be successful in college or their future career.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Teacher Disengagement

We talk a lot about student engagement in schools.  Probably not as much as we should, but it's still a topic that comes up rather often.  "My freshman Algebra class looks at me with glazed eyes while they drool on their textbooks" is probably a sentence that's repeated in high school faculty rooms all over the country on a regular basis.

Lack of teacher engagement is something that's discussed far less frequently, but it's a huge problem.  Disengaged teachers probably don't create amazing learning environments.  Disengaged teachers probably don't inspire students to be engaged.  Disengaged teachers may or may not be drooling on their teachers' manuals.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr - Jayegirl99

Last night I had a tough time falling asleep.  Sometimes this happens due to stress.  Other times it happens because the New York Giants played a night game and found a new, creative way to lose in the last few minutes.  Last night it happened because I was really fired up about all the great things that are happening in school.  Kindergarten kids are sharing their learning on individual and class blogs.  First graders are using Blabberize to share what they've learned about different animals.  Second graders are blogging about different types of communities.  Third and fourth graders are Skyping kids in other states to learn about geography.  Our fifth graders are building room-sized models of plant and animal cells.  The grad class of teachers I'm working with is excited to radically change pedagogy to be more student-centered. 

Despite my lack of sleep, I couldn't wait to get into school this morning to do more of this stuff with kids.  I'm engaged and passionate about what I'm doing, and this lead me to a few thoughts:
  1. Sometimes when teachers say "I'm exhausted", they really don't mean "I'm exhausted."  They may think they are exhausted, and I'm sure they're tired.  But, what they really mean is, "I'm not excited about what I'm doing right now."  When you are engaged and passionate about what you are doing, you often ignore tiredness.  Eventually we all need rest, but when we're in that zone of passion, doing the amazing supersedes the need for rest.
  2. Too many times disengaged teachers will be resentful of others who are passionate.  That teacher who stays at school until 6 getting incredible stuff ready for the next day, that teacher who won't shut up about the stuff they learned in a Twitter chat the night before, and that annoying guy who routinely gives up his weekends to go to something called an EdCamp are not trying to show you up.  They aren't trying to gain brownie points with the principal.  They are just lucky enough to be engaged.  Try asking what has them so excited.  You may just find something that flips your switch from turned-off to turned-on.  And, tell them that there are many brands of decaf on the market that are just as tasty as the real thing. (If you recognized that as a Real Genius reference, you get bonus points.)
  3. Nobody went into the teaching profession to be the best deliverer of test-prep.  If you are disengaged, and that's what your job has become, there's probably a correlation.  So stop doing that.  I understand that moving away from this is much harder in some places.  This testing culture is responsible for a great many disengaged teachers.  So, do what you can.  Step outside your comfort zone and do one thing a day that bucks the system.  Take one action that reminds you of why you chose to be a teachers.  That one act of civil disobedience may just be the thing in your day that reminds you why being a teacher is the best job in the world.  It also may be the one thing in the day that stops your students from drooling on their textbooks. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Math - Draw More Chickens, Write Fewer Numbers

Today I had the pleasure of being asked to work with 4th and 5th grade special education students.  Their teacher had explained to me that they were having trouble understanding multiplication.  Even though my new position is technically supposed to be helping teachers incorporate 21st Century Skills into lessons, I will never be able to pass up an opportunity to teach math.  I love it too much.

I started by asking them what multiplication was.


I said, "OK.  When I say 'multiplication', what comes to mind.  There's no wrong answers.  Throw some words out."

One student said, "Times tables?"  Another said, "Skip counting."  After a pause another offered, "That line with two dots around it."

I'm guessing she meant the division symbol.

Here's the thing - I don't think the answers in most 4th and 5th grade regular education classes would be much different.  Kids think that math is about tricks we do with numbers, and that the key to being good at math is learning those tricks.  Special ed students, and lots of other kids think that because they are bad at memorizing rules, they'll never be good at math.  That's wrong.

Next, I told those kids that multiplication, and math, was not about numbers.  They looked at me like I had three heads.  At least I had their attention.  I reiterated, "You've been lied to your entire life.  Math is not about numbers.  And I'm going to prove it to you."

They were hooked.  Probably because they didn't believe me and they couldn't wait to see the head teacher crash and burn in a fiery mess.  Figuratively, of course.  Well, maybe literally for some of them.

So I told them, "Draw a picture of three chickens on your white boards.  I'm going to draw chickens, too.  Please don't laugh at my chickens.  I'm a mathematician, not an art teacher."
I'm a Mathematician, Not an Art Teacher
They were nice.  They didn't laugh at my chickens.

I said, "OK, each chicken just laid 3 eggs.  Go ahead and draw 3 eggs under each chicken.  You see, multiplication isn't '3x3'.  That's just the numbers and symbols we use to describe multiplication.  Multiplication is all about groups.  '3x3' just means that we have three groups of three."

The light bulbs started to go on.  They stopped looking at me like I was crazy, even if they didn't totally understand yet.

We modeled groups of airplanes with passengers.  Cookies with chocolate chips.  Flying saucers with aliens.  My flying saucers rocked.  Much better than my poor attempt at chickens.  Each time we talked about how there were repeated groups of the same number.  I only showed the multiplication problem in number/symbol form after we had figured out the answer to "How many do we have in all the groups."

I was pretty sure they understood, but I wanted to make sure.  So I told them, "Now, I'm going to give you a multiplication problem.  I don't care what you draw, but I want to see you express the problem as groups."  I gave them 7x4.

Some drew cookies, others drew flying saucers.  One kid drew seven tornadoes with four cars being mangled in each cyclone.  A bit graphic, but mathematically sound. All of them were able to model the problem without help.

For years I've talked about teaching math differently.  I've talked about the need to solve real problems, that there needed to be relevance behind everything that we teach - even basic facts.  I've talked about helping kids to understand before asking them to memorize.  Some were receptive.  Most thought I was crazy.  Many told me that I'd think differently if I didn't only teach the high math group.

They were wrong.  There's no reason that we shouldn't expect almost all students to have understanding of math the way we expect almost all students to learn to read.  We just have to stop expecting kids that have trouble memorizing to have no problems memorizing stuff that has no relevance to them.  In 40 minutes these special education kids went from thinking that multiplication was "the line with two dots around it" to being able to model multiplication problems.

Math isn't about numbers any more than writing is about the alphabet.  Numbers and symbols are just our way of expressing the quantities in the world around us just as the letters we use to write are the symbols we use to express our thoughts.  When we take away that context of that world around us, we take away students' understanding.

We'd never tell a student that they should do 40 letter manipulation problems for homework to get better at writing.  Or at least we shouldn't. (I'm not a big fan of spelling workbooks.)  That's not going to turn them into a writer.  Heck, it's probably going to turn them into a kid who hates writing.

Math is no different.  It shouldn't be about following rules to manipulate numbers.  It should be more about drawing chickens.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Blogging with Elementary Students: How Do I Get Started?

Elementary Bloggers
Often when I talk to other elementary teachers about the blogging I've done with my students and the incredible benefits that they have gotten out of the experience, I hear the comment, "I'd love to do that with my students, but I don't know how or where to begin."  With that in mind, I'd like to share how I introduce my students to blogging.

The first thing that you'll need to do as a teacher is to choose a blog platform.  There's lots of them out there, and they all have their plusses and minuses.  Personally, I've found Kidblog to be the easiest, safest, and best all-around blog platform for what I've been trying to do, so that's what I'm going to focus on here. 

Next, you'll have to set up accounts.  If you are using Kidblog, this screencast should help you out:

Once your accounts are set up, the next step is getting your students started.  I recommend letting students choose a topic that they want to learn more about rather than choosing a topic for them.  This allows them to take ownership of their blog right away. 

For older elementary students, I try to stress that their topic should not be something on which they are already an expert, but something they want to learn about.  This will allow us to discuss criteria for finding good sources of information, bias, and the importance of citing their sources.  If they are already an expert (or think they are), they will tend to write from memory rather than doing research.

Whether Wikipedia is a valid source is always a hot topic among teachers.  I like to discuss how wikis work with my students so that they understand that information on Wikipedia is a collaboration of information from people all over the world.  For that reason, I don't discourage students from using Wikipedia as a tool to get an overview of a topic and to find valid sources for their topic by using the references at the bottom of articles.  For example, I would not want them citing the Wikipedia article on Wallenpaupack Area School District, but would encourage them to use the references to get to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's graduation statistics page. 

For citations, I like to use BibMe.  I know there are multiple other citation tools on the web, but my students have found this one to be the easiest.  For most websites, you can simply copy and paste the URL into the site and it will give you the citation in the format of your choosing.  For our first blog posts, I require citations from at least two sources.

Finally, before letting kids start their posts, it's important to discuss the audience and purpose for which they are writing.  Most students who have no blogging experience have only written for their previous teachers.  Publishing information on the internet is not the same as turning in an assignment.  Help them understand that they will be publishing information that others will be able to use to learn about their topic.  Discuss how important accuracy, good grammar, and spelling are in order for the readers to believe in the credibility of the author.  Talk about keeping bias out of their informational writing. 

For younger students, allowing them to share what they already know is a great way to introduce them to blogging.  This can be done as young as kindergarten. (Here's a great example of a kindergarten class blog.)  Having a digital camera and adding pictures of student illustrations to their text can make this even more powerful.  Starting with a sentence or two and an illustration is great.  You want this to be a positive experience, and you want them to experience success.  Talk about the importance of good spelling and grammar, but don't harp on it so much that students focus on that over content.  As they write more and as they get more feedback in the form of comments, those things will improve.

One of the most important and powerful things you can do after students write their first posts is to publish them as far and wide as possible.  We know that students need meaningful feedback in order to learn, and blog comments can be powerful, meaningful feedback  Encourage parents, other classes to which you are connected, and anyone else you can reach to comment on your students' work.  Teach students how to leave meaningful comments and let them comment on each other's work. ("I didn't know there were elephants in India.  Thanks for sharing that information."  rather than "Great Job, Suzie!!!!!!!!!!!!!")

Knowing that their writing is being read and appreciated by others will make the efforts they have put into their first post seem totally worthwhile.  .  And it will probably leave them asking you, "When can I write my next post?"

Monday, April 29, 2013

7 Great iPad Apps for Your Classroom

Recently I signed up for a graduate course being taught by Jim Gates through Eduspire called "iPads in Education."  It's nice to be on the other (student) side of a grad class for a change.  The course has been very good so far.  Jim is great, and the class tuition includes an iPad that you get to keep to use in your classroom.  I've used my own personal iPad in my classroom on occasion, but it's nice to have one with which I can let my students get personal.

Since my students have been using the iPad at every available opportunity, I figured it was time to put up a post reviewing some of their (and my) favorite apps.  Ironically, the app I used to create this screencast (Educreations) is not one that I reviewed.  It is excellent, free and easy to use, and I highly reccomend it for students and teachers.

Monday, April 8, 2013

I've Been Nominated for a Bammy Award

Anyone who has read a newspaper, turned on the news lately, or read this blog can tell you that being an educator right now is more difficult than it has ever been.  For a variety of reasons, most having to do with money and politics it's been becoming increasingly difficult to do what's best for our students.

But many educators are doing just that anyway.  Even in the face of unreasonable scrutiny, unmerited criticism, and intense political pressure, many educators are deciding that they will not be swayed from preparing their students for the futures that await them in the 21st century.  They refuse to let any of the intense criticism of education stop them from doing what's right.

Last year, the BAM Radio Network decided to counter the negative narrative being told about education by acknowledging those who exemplify the best in education - from teachers, to superintendents, to school nurses, to support staff.  This is how the Bammy Awards were born.

This year, the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences International, which includes leading educators, education leaders, education professors, journalists, researchers, editors, commentators, advocates, activists, visionaries, and pioneers, will present two awards in each of 31 categories at a red-carpet event this September in Washington DC.  The Educator's Voice Award will be determined by online voting, while the Bammy Award will be determined by the Board of Governors.   

I am honored to be nominated for a 2013 Bammy Award in the category "Elementary School Teacher of the Year."  As such, I am asking you for your vote.   

In addition, I'd like you to consider nominating and voting for others in education that are doing great things.

Thank you for your support, and for your support of all that is good in education.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

I Don't Instruct. I Teach.

Too many times I read about teaching and I see the word "instruction."

Let's get something straight.  I don't instruct.  I teach.

Instructions are followed blindly.  Nobody learns from following instructions.  They simply comply with them.

My students learn.  Because I don't instruct.  I teach.  I support them, strive to inspire them, and help them do things that are meaningful.  I design situations for them that foster creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.  I encourage them to share their learning with others in order to get meaningful feedback.

When you call what I do "instruction" I am offended.

The key to improving education has nothing to do with improving instruction.

It has everything to do with eliminating it and replacing it with good teaching.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

If You Want Students to Learn, Value Learning

Here's a little discussed fact about our education system:  We don't value learning.

We pretend to value learning.  We use the term lots.  We add it to our mission statements.  But we really don't care about it.  At least not enough to actually focus on it.

What we care about in schools are grades.  This is obvious to anyone who's spent 15 minutes in a school.

Grades reflect intelligence.  Grades reflect compliance.  Grades reflect socio-economic status.  Grades reflect parent involvement.  Grades reflect family stability.

Grades do not reflect learning.

Let's explore a few examples.

We all knew the really smart kid in school who didn't have to study but got a report card full of 'A's anyway.  Did those 'A's reflect how much that kid had learned, or how much they already knew?  Think about how much better that student would be served if we eliminated the grades and asked him/her to show evidence of new learning.

How about the kids we all know who learn early on in school that they will never be the 'A' students.  Many of them figure out early on that there is no point in exerting any effort in school.  What if we asked them to show evidence that they learned something new instead of punishing them for not complying, being smart enough, having enough family support, etc.?  Think of a system that encourages them to maximize their potential instead of pushing them toward dropping out when they hit high school.  Think of how much better they, and society would be.

If we really did value learning, that's what we would report.  Instead of a meaningless letter or number on a report card, we'd have a list created by students and their teachers of new things those students have learned along with links or other evidence to proof of that learning.

Instead of "Math - 88", we may see something like this:
Jimmy learned basic statistics and data analysis, including using the mean and median of data as a part of the decision making process.  He also learned how to write a business letter and how laws are made within his township.  This learning is evidenced by the attached letter and diagram which he sent to the Smith Township Supervisors in October in which he used traffic data he collected on Main Street to support the need for an additional traffic light.
Which do you think is more meaningful to the student?  To his/her parents?  To potential future employers?

Often I'll hear in response to this push for a more learning-centered approach to education, "Colleges don't care about all that stuff.  They only care about GPA and SAT scores."  This is not true.  Many students who come from homeschool situations and schools (like the Circle School in Harrisburg, PA) that don't give grades get into our top universities every year without having a GPA.  They get accepted because they provide those universities with detailed descriptions of what they've learned and what they've done.  They provide those universities with the same thing that others provide potential employers all the time - a good resume.

The time has come for our schools to stop pretending they value learning, and to start actually valuing learning.  It's time to stop defining students by meaningless numbers and letters.  If our students learn to love the extrinsic rewards of good grades and praise, they'll have trouble succeeding in life after school when grades are non-existent and praise is rare.

But if our students learn to love learning instead of those extrinsic rewards, their futures are bright with opportunity.  If we help them become the "life-long learners" so many mission statements describe, they will have the skills they need to meet the challenges that are inevitable in life.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Preparing our Students for the (1950's) Workforce

This morning, while getting ready for school, I was getting my daily dose of news by flipping through different stations on TV.  One station shared a Forbes report of the top 10 skills you will need to find employment in 2013.  They were:
  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Complex Problem Solving
  3. Judgment and Decision Making
  4. Active Listening
  5. Computers and Electronics
  6. Mathematics
  7. Operations and Systems Analysis
  8. Monitoring
  9. Programming
  10. Sales and Marketing
Watching this list unfold on the screen a belief that I've had for a while was reinforced.  Out of those 10 skills that are being sought in the workplace, we focus on exactly one of them in our schools.  And the way we go about focusing on mathematics is so damaging that the majority of our students graduate without a real knowledge of what mathematics actually is, let alone the ability to apply it to real situations.
We talk about graduating students who are college and career ready, yet we focus almost all of our time, energy, and resources on things for which neither colleges nor employers are looking.

Not only are we not preparing our students for the workplace of their futures, well beyond 2013 and the list above.  We're still preparing them for the factory jobs of the 1950s in which compliance, basic reading and writing skills and the ability to calculate were all you needed to be successful. 

The more we focus on standardized tests as the driving force in education, the more we make it impossible for our students to develop the skills they most desperately need.  You cannot measure critical thinking, active listening, complex problem solving, or any of the above skills on a multiple choice test.  As much as the corporate reform movement of the past 15 years has complained that schools are not properly preparing students for the workforce, nothing has forced schools to shift focus away from those skills our students most need more than the corporate reform movement. 

Our students need to be able to critically think, problem solve, evaluate difficult situations, and actively listen, yet we continue to put the greatest importance on multiple choice tests, ensuring that none of those things can be a focus in schools.  Our students need to learn to use computers, electronics, and to program, yet we put policies in place to prevent them from even taking the electronics they already own - the very electronics they will need to utilize in the workforce - out of their pockets. 

Basically, we have turned schools into places where we prepare students for the realities of our past.  While some overcome this insanity to become successful, pointing to them as a reason to continue with this broken system is like pointing to the 90 year old smoker as a reason to give our children cigarettes. 

It is time to confront the realities of the 21st Century.  We don't know what jobs will be available to our students in the future.  Many of them don't exist yet.  We do know that skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making are becoming more important.  That should drive what we do in schools.

Ten years ago, the world was very different than it is right now.  The phone in your pocket didn't exist.  No smartphone did.  There was no such thing as an iPad or a digital tablet.  Now, those items are ubiquitous. 

My fifth grade students are 10 and 11 years old.  What will the world look like when they are looking for jobs?

I don't know, but I do know it won't look like the 1950's. 

So stop trying to force me to prepare them for that.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Self-Reflection: Has My Teaching Been Effective?

I believe strongly that people need meaningful feedback to learn.  I try to provide opportunities for my students to get that feedback as often as possible and in a variety of ways.

In order for me to learn and grow as a teacher, I need meaningful feedback as well.  This is often difficult to get.  Test scores aren't the best measure of what's important in school, so it would be silly for me to use them as a self-reflection tool.

With that in mind, I asked my students to spend a few minutes filling out a five question survey yesterday.  Since I stressed to my students that the survey was totally anonymous and that I wanted them to be brutally honest, I was a bit anxious to see the results. 

Here's what I found:

Question #1 - Do you agree with the following statement?
I enjoy learning more than I did before this school year started.

Question #2 - Do you agree with the following statement?
I've learned a lot so far this year.
Question #3 - What are some things we have done so far this year that have made it easier for you to learn? (I paraphrased student responses and put them into Wordle - more frequent responses appear larger.)


Question #4 - What are some things Mr. Soskil can do better during the second half of the year to make it easier for you to learn?


Question #5 - What are some things that you (student) can do better during the second half of the year to make it easier for you to learn?

My reactions:
  • I'm disappointed by the number of students who are not enjoying learning more than in the past.  Increasing love of learning is one of my top goals.  I need to focus on this more.
  • I'm happy that my students feel that they are learning a lot.  I agree with them.  I've seen amazing growth in all of them.  I purposefully didn't include any clarification on what has been learned.  As long as they are learning, I'm happy.
  • This is my first year having my students blog.  I'm sold.  It was the number one response when listing the things we've done that have made it easier to learn.  I see that they are motivated to learn new things so that they have material to blog about, and I see that they are becoming better writers as they continue sharing that learning. 
  • The words "explaining" and "explanation" came up a lot in many of my students' responses.  I see that as a possible red flag that they still view me as the person who gives them information.  They learned more because I explained things more to them and want even more explanation of things going forward.  I worry that I'm not passing the control of their learning over to them as much as I had hoped I would.
  • On the other hand, many of them see that they need to seek information on their own in order to be more successful during the second half of the year.  That's encouraging. 
  • Many students' self-reflection responses ("pay attention more", "stop talking") tell me that I still have work to do in convinving them that learning isn't about sitting in one's seat and listening to the teacher.  I know that this group has difficulty listening to anyone who is talking, even when collaborating with others for a common purpose.  I'm hoping their responses are more about the issues when collaborating, but I doubt it. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

This I Believe

Yesterday Chris Lehmann posted a list of his 10 core beliefs as an educator on his blog, Practical Theory.  He asked his readers to post their core beliefs.  After some self-reflection, here are mine. 

What are yours?

This I Believe
1.  The most important things we do as teachers:  the moments that our students will carry with them for the rest of their lives, the truly meaningful actions that define who we are as teachers – cannot be measured.  If you think they can then you don’t understand what we do.

2.  Learning to love learning is more important that any information with which we can try and fill a child’s head.

3.  Children are born learners.  They are naturally curious and creative.  Teachers should do everything in their power to avoid participating in practices that stifle that curiosity and creativity.

4.  Measuring learning is significantly less important than actually learning.  It should be done only when doing so when the measurement is helpful to the learner.

5.  Grades do not help students learn.  They help adults rank, sort, and judge students.  Students need meaningful feedback from others to learn.  Numbers and letters placed on top of a test are not meaningful feedback. 

6.  The decisions we make in schools should be based upon what is best for the children we serve and not upon what is popular with parents, politicians, colleges, and corporations.

7.  Teachers need to get better.  Every teacher should be pursuing the goal of improving as a professional.  Teachers should be models of life-long learning.  If we focused our energy on providing the support, resources, and inspiration for EVERY teacher to constantly improve instead of identifying and firing those teachers who are “bad” using sketchy test data, every student would benefit immensely. 

8.  Math is not a series of procedures to be followed in order to arrive at correct answers.  Some think they are not good at math because they couldn’t memorize procedure.  Others think they are great mathematicians because they could.  In reality, there are many great mathematicians for whom calculation is not a great strength.  And there are many great calculators who are not good mathematicians.  We need to change how we present mathematics to our students so that “school math” and “real math” are one and the same.

9.  We live in a time of ubiquitous technology.  Student learning should happen in an environment that reflects that fact, but technology is just the tool of our time.  Good teaching is not determined by the technology used but by the quality of the pedagogy.  The basis of good teaching has been the same for millennia, but it may look very different in the 21st Century than it did when Socrates was teaching Plato.  Just as the Socratic Method was grounded in inquiry, our pedagogy should be student centered and driven by inquiry.

10.  Decisions should be based on data, research, and experience.  Too often decisions are based on data that is most convenient to obtain, cheapest to gather, or cherry-picked to prove a political point.  This does a terrible disservice to our children.  Using data incorrectly is more harmful than not using it at all, and some things cannot be quantified.  Just because we cannot measure what is truly important (see #1) does not mean that we should put importance on what we can measure.   

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Twitter May Not Be for All Teachers, But PLN is Vital

This morning, Royan Lee asked in a blog post, "Is Tweeting for Everyone?"  Having taught several PD sessions during the past few weeks on using Twitter to build a Professional Learning Network, I found this question to be interesting.  Here's my response (left as a comment on the post):
I don’t think that one needs to have a presence on Twitter to be an effective educator. But communicating with technology is a vital skill that we need to model for our students. If we are not collaborating and communicating with 21st Century tools, is it reasonable for us to think we are preparing our students for their futures? Twitter is simply one of many tools that can be used to tap into the collective wisdom of millions of educators around the world. The blogosphere is another avenue. Some like Plurk, others have found their PLN in more specialized places for music teachers, librarians, etc. There’s no right or wrong way to network. The days of being able to teach effectively by closing your classroom door and doing what’s always been done are over. The world is changing more quickly than it ever has before, information is exploding at exponential rates, and that information is more accessible than ever before. Good teaching looks different than it did 50 years ago, or even 5 years ago. It will look different 5 years down the road. Good teachers need a way to keep up with that. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Allow Teachers the Chance to Be Excellent

Everybody wants excellent teachers.  Parents want their kids to have the best teachers, politicians claim to want teachers to be excellent, communities want their schools to have excellent teachers, and teachers themselves want to be excellent at what they do.  Regardless of how we feel about how to reach this goal, the desire for excellent teachers seems to be a universal desire.

Every teacher certification program spends time teaching us Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  (I used the term 'teacher certification program' and not 'teacher preparation program' because I'm not familiar with what gets cut when 4 year college programs get squeezed into crash-course 5-week teacher prep programs like those offered by Teach For America.)  It's widely accepted that people cannot reach the higher levels of the Hierarchy without having their needs met at the lower levels.  We're taught this so that we can help our students learn.  Students who are hungry, sleep-deprived, unhealthy, etc. cannot learn until those needs are met.

Yesterday I was reminded of Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs by this Tweet from R. Turner:

Teacher basic needs

The answer is obvious. Teachers, just like any other people, cannot be effective at anything without having their basic needs met.  I got thinking about Maslow, his Hierarchy and how it relates to teachers in today's education culture.

When we look at the Hierarchy, the qualities we find in excellent teachers like creativity, problem-solving, and lack of prejudice (objectivity) are all found at the top.  In order to reach that top teachers must have the needs below them met.

As we look at the needs below the top, we start to see some of the things that the reform movement of the last decade has targeted: teacher job security, respect of the teaching profession, resources available to teachers in schools.  It's clear that teachers are incapable of reaching their full potential without these necessities. 

The question we've got to ask then is, "What is the purpose of this reform movement?"  Either those pushing for these reforms believe that excellent teaching does not include objectivity, problem-solving, and creativity, or there is a motive other than excellent teaching behind their policies. 

Either way, we need to look in a different direction if we are to provide our students with the excellent education they deserve. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

First Grade #anyqs Cookie Eating Contest

This morning I got asked by one of the first grade teachers in my building if I would be willing to come into her classroom and teach a math lesson.  After hearing me talk about the need to step away from our textbooks, have more math discussion, and encourage students to develop the questions, she wanted to see what that would look like in first grade.  Of course, I happily accepted.

Immediately I started brainstorming how I could put together an #anyqs type video that was simple enough to bring about first grade discussion on addition and subtraction.  It's not often that I get the chance to work with our younger elementary students in the classroom.  The last time was over 10 years ago.  I don't remember much about that lesson on measurement other than making one student cry when I told him to stop sticking his measuring tape up his nose.

I enlisted the help of my wife, son, and daughter.  My wife held the video camera and let us borrow two plates of cookies that she baked for her high-school science classes. (We did eat a few of them before giving them back, but it was for a good cause.)  My kids played starring roles.

Here's what I came up with:

I'll pause it a few times during the lesson to see if we can get some good mathematical discussion going.

Let me know what you think.  Any changes you'd suggest?  I've done a ton of this type of lesson w/ my fifth graders before, but this is my first shot at doing it in the primary grades.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

I'm Not an EdTech Guy

I'm often referred to as a "tech guy" or an "ed-tech guy" in my building.  I use a lot of technology in my class.  My 5h grade students maintain a class wiki, blog regularly, use web 2.0 tools on a daily basis, create podcasts and videos, network with each other on Edmodo, and spend plenty of class time working on-line.
Image:  twobee/

But I am not an ed-tech guy.

I don't spend much time planning on how to integrate technology into my classroom any more.  There was a time when I did.  I was an ed-tech guy then.  I'd take my kids to the computer lab and teach them how to use web 2.0 tools for the sake of using 21st century technology.

Now, I just share the tools that are needed for my students to learn and share their learning with others.  The technology isn't the focus any more.  It's just the way things are done in the 21st century.  We don't spend time planning how electricity can be incorporated into our lessons.  It's just there if we need it.  Technology needs to be the same way.

Last week one of my students came to me and proudly showed off two new origami animals he invented.  I was really impressed and told him that he should draw step-by-step directions to share.  I told him he could probably sell such a book if he created a few more animals.  His creations were really good.  He told me that he would rather make a video because he'd be much better at explaining things verbally.

That's when I showed him how to use the digital camera we have to shoot video, upload to MyBrainShark, and embed the video in his blog.

During the same day, I had a few students who were researching important events in the history of manned flight.  They were drawing a timeline by hand in one of the student's notebooks with the events on it.  They asked me to borrow one of our digital cameras in order to take a picture of it to post on the wiki when they finished.  That's when I took them over to a free computer and introduced them to TimeToast and XTimeline.

When we get right down to it, learning hasn't changed in the 21st Century.  Collaboration, investigation, trial and error, getting feedback from others, and all of the other great ways that we learn are still great ways to learn- just like they were when Plato was learning from Socrates.

How we are able to do those things has changed, and that's where we need to adapt as teachers in order to prepare our students for the world in which they are going to be living.  But our attention still needs to be on the learning and not on the technology.

So, please stop calling me an ed-tech guy.  That's not my focus.

I'm a learning guy who helps my students navigate the world in which they are living.