Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Global Holiday Song Exchange Skype-a-Thon

The following post is cross posted from the "21st Century Learning at the South Elementary" blog that I also author.  There I post the great learning experiences that we bring to our students.  Unfortunately, with all that is happening lately, I have struggled to keep up with sharing some of those great experiences here.  I am going to try cross-posting some of my favorite activities in both places to see if I can do a better job sharing with you all.

Global Holiday Song Exchange Skype-a-Thon

South Elementary music teacher Jean Shields leads 3rd grade
students in song.
Yesterday the students at the South Elementary got to experience one of the great joys of the holiday season - music from around the world.  Through Skype, our students took part in seven different group calls that allowed them to exchange holiday songs with students from five different continents. The planning of the project over the past 2 weeks was done with the help of a lesson posted on the Skype in the Classroom website.  We asked for classrooms in other locations to contact us if they wished to participate.  Many of our connections were made through that posting.   We wanted to make sure that we had 2 other classrooms connecting with us in each of our time slots.  During our group calls, each class had the opportunity to sing three of their favorite holiday songs for their partner classes.

The first call of the day partnered our 3rd grade students with children in Russia and Poland.  Some of the Russian students dressed up as traditional holiday characters from their country: Papa Frost and his granddaughter who deliver presents to children on New Year's Eve.

Our next session partnered our 3rd graders with students in France and Venezuela.  A French newspaper wrote about the interaction here:  Mende : Jeanne-d’Arc connectée au reste de la planète.  The highlight of this call was when all three schools sang "Jingle Bells" in their own language.  It was a beautiful three-continent, three-language sing along.

 The third group call connected students in Mrs. Spitzer's homeroom with students in Greece and Canada.  Our Greek friends shared a bit about their Christmas traditions and insisted on taking a three-country picture at the end of the call.

Our fourth connection stayed within the United States. Mrs. Gates's second grade class connected with schools in Massachusetts and Delaware.

Session five also stayed within the United States.  Our 4th and 5th grade chorus got the opportunity to share the songs they had been practicing with a Middle School chorus in Virgina and a group of 4th grade students in Utah. There was some fantastic singing going on during this call as you can see in the video below.


The sixth session of the day of the day brought countries in North America together.  Second grade students in Mrs. Gates's and Mrs. Seifert's classes and Mrs. Conklin's Kindergartners sang for and with students in Mexico and Canada.  Since the Mexican students spoke Spanish and the students in Canada were French speaking, there was another multi-language caroling activity at the end of the call.

Our last connection of the day was between Mrs. Flynn's second grade students,  first graders in Colorado, and third graders in Hawaii.  The Colorado students played the xylophone along with their songs.  The Hawaiian students sang a unique version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" that substituted in gifts from Hawaii like coconuts, giant squid, and papaya trees.

In addition to our seven connections during the day, classrooms that could not connect live due to time zone restraints or holiday breaks sent us videos of their students singing.  We received videos from Serbia, India, France, and Kenya.  Those videos can be seen on the Distance Teaching Project website and will be played as part of our morning news broadcast during the next few days. This was an amazing experience for everyone who participated.  We've already had multiple requests to plan another Holiday Song Skype-a-Thon for next year.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Connected Classrooms and the New World of Learning

Yesterday I was blessed with the opportunity to share some of the great work our students have been doing with some of the most passionate do-gooders of the world at the 2014 Social Good Summit in New York City.  The summit was sponsored by Mashable and the United Nations Foundation.  My talk with Wendy Norman from Skype about the power of students connecting globally via videoconferencing to change the world was broadcast to over 160 countries and translated into 7 languages.  This was undoubtedly one of my career highlights.

The video is embedded below.  Wendy speaks for about 7 minutes before introducing me and letting me finish the presentation.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Assigning Optional Homework?

The following post is posted with permission from the author, Scott Bedley.  It originally appeared on his blog, Cutting Edge-ucation, on July 7, 2014. Scott is the 2013 IUSD Teacher of the Year, 2013 High-Tech Innovation Award winner for STEM Education, 2014 Orange County Teacher of the Year, and a 2014 CA State Teacher of the Year Finalist.  He and his brother Tim produce the Bedley Brothers EdChat Show, which can be found on iTunes and YouTube.

Assigning Optional Homework?

So... Should homework be required or eliminated?

A few years back, my district went through an exercise of looking at homework and our policies surrounding it.  Meetings were had, discussions and debates occurred, and in the end... nothing much seemed to have changed.  I understand why... this is a tough issue! Homework, after all, is truly a pillar of education.  So as the debate over homework seems to continue on like Pink Floyd's song "Comfortably Numb" ...looped..., some arguing for it and others against it, all with no solution... I'd like to propose an optional new policy... The Optional Homework Policy.  The optional homework policy states this... "Students, if you or your parents would like you to complete homework, then here are your options."  Yes, giving the decision making power, to have or not have homework, over to the students and their families. Crazy!?  Will Not Work!  Kids' Scores Will Drop!  Before you judge, please think growth mindset... and know that I've actually been testing this out over the past school year with positive results for all parties involved with the homework debate.

There are three basic explanations/reasons why I reconsidered required or no homework:

Grades, Grades, Grades...

As teachers we have the choice to calculate homework into a grade or not.  Most teachers I know have homework as a small percentage of a student's overall performance, yet many of the report card conversations between teachers, parents and students, from my experience and as shared with by many other teachers, revolve around the topic of missing or late homework.  Now I don't believe that something should be changed to avoid a conversation, but these conversations can often become distractors or points of contention between parent and student, student and teacher, and teacher and parent, thus creating problems in partnerships that are vital to real learning. These homework conversations are another draw away from the important conversation about learning, true student needs, and areas of growth.

The important question to ask oneself about homework grades is why is it being given?  The typical answer would be work completion, practice of concepts or responsibility at primary levels, and preparation at the higher levels.  Most don't say that the primary or important factor in homework is as a diagnostic tool to report to parents on a students ability or performance. There's too many variables that impact homework to use it as a diagnostic for student learning or as a tool to help guide future lessons and instruction. When homework becomes optional though, the feedback, and not the grade, become more important to the learner.  Feedback is how we learn.  I've seen the focus shift and become about the quality rather than the completion. So rather than giving grades based on completion of work, grades can continue to move towards being about reporting levels of learning growth.

Help or lack of it

It's a "Goldie Locks" deal... some get too much, some not enough and others just the right amount. While parents and teachers are often on one side or the other in this debate, the optional homework policy pleases all. Ideally the parents who may offer too much help to a child, thus taking away their chance to feel the success that builds confidence, find that their help (which is at times aimed at grades) becomes obsolete and the focus shifts to supporting a child's learning.  Fewer conflicts occur between child and parent and student and teacher.  On the other hand, the student that always struggles with homework, and comes to our learning environments already with a feeling of failure, now is far more open to learning.

Real Impact?

On a study my teaching partners and I did in 2007, surrounding homework's true impact, we found that through a comparison based in data, the students who received less homework (in the subject area of math for our study) had three key factors surface.  First, parents reported better relationships with these children. Next, students positive attitudes and feelings towards learning and school showed a measurable increase as well as in-class focus and participation based on surveys and observable evidence by two outside teachers watching the three groups in class for engagement and effort. Finally, the group who received the least amount of homework, actually showed the highest percentage of gains from pre-assessment to post assessment on the math concepts.  Again, with the number of variables, I can't say beyond doubt that homework or lack of it, was the factor that truly made the difference, but it did play a key factor.

Still not convinced... Me either

My main hope is to "get you up on the fence" about this topic so you can look down on both sides and clearly evaluate homework requirement practices and why they are in place.  One quote that sticks with me came from some of the additional video content from the movie Race to Nowhere.

"Homework may be the greatest single extinguisher of children's curiosity that we have yet invented..."

So, where do our fears as educators and in education lie with letting go of homework? Are we giving homework because it's always been done or because it makes a positive impact?  If you believe it makes a positive impact, what real concrete proof do you have that it's the homework providing this improvement?

I write this blog only to encourage you to question things that have always been... I hope you'll question some norms... maybe even check out my previous post titled "Subversive Education Unconference Style"

My Steps and Results

So what did I do to make homework optional? Well... when I change things I don't only consider the implementation I will make, but I consider "will others be able to do this too?"  Confession... This isn't for everyone. Baiscally I took the assignments I would normally assign and said... "This is optional..."  after all, I have no foundational research to show homework was actually beneficial, so how could I justify continuing a required practice that no one could prove even worked after decades and decades of research and debate.  So rather than stop giving it, or continuing to require it... I made it optional leaving the decision to the parents and students.

How has my experiment gone? First, please know I wouldn't have tested this without the data from the study we did in 2007 and a great deal of research... but it's been great!  One of the most positive outcomes I've seen is that it's pushed me as an educator to continue create in-class assignments that drive kids to want to continue their learning on their own at home, intrinsically, by choice. It's so rewarding to have my students have the desire to learn more about a subject I'm teaching, because it's one of the main reasons I went into teaching... to inspire my students to learn.  In addition, many students who have wilted under "required homework" policies have started to blossom and come to life as learners in my subject areas.  I can't say beyond a doubt that The Optional Homework Policy has alone created the success and desire to learn I've seen, as I'm always trying new ways to inspire my students to learn, but I do feel confident it's been a key contributing factor to success for both my students and myself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Are you going to try The Optional Homework Policy? Tweet at me or comment to let me know.  My next action step... student choice self-assigned homework. I'll let you know how it goes...

Additional reading on the homework debate that's gone on since the early 1900's ACSD's look at Homework through the 20th and 21st Centuries

Thanks so much for reading!  With my best hopes for you and your students!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Edcamp USA at the US Department of Education

Let me start out this post with an apology. I should have shared more in the past few months. There have been many blog worthy events and topics that have presented themselves. Unfortunately, there have been so many of those opportunities that I've been too busy to write about them. As time went on, I felt like I had so many blog posts to write that I was a bit overwhelmed to even start catching up. And, so I didn't write.

As someone who preaches to others the importance of telling the positive stories in education, I am sorry that I didn't share some of the incredible things I see teachers and students doing around me.  Here are a few brief descriptions with links to catch you up on some of them:
There are other amazing things going on at school, but that list gives you some idea of the things we've been doing. Because of those projects, Skype in the Classroom took notice of our school and asked me to represent them at a media event in New York City last week, and at the Social Innovation Summit, which is hosted by the United Nations. Being able to share stories of the amazing things our students and teachers are doing in front of thousands of the most innovative problem solvers and do-gooders from around the world in New York is definitely one of my career highlights so far.

Edcampers gather for a group picture after #EdcampUSA
So, that brings me to Friday.  The US Department of Education and the Edcamp Foundation collaborated to bring teachers from around the country and policy makers from the Department together in an unconference format to improve education for the first time. There was overwhelming demand among teachers to get a free ticket to the event, and I was fortunate enough to get selected in the lottery. I am also grateful that my district agreed to allow me to take a professional day to attend.

Anyone who follows this blog or knows me understands that I have not always agreed with policy decisions coming out of the Department of Education.  I can honestly say that I did not have high expectations that USDOEd would put much weight into the ideas that teachers shared at this event, and I was a bit worried that they would use it as a publicity event instead of an opportunity to really hear what teachers are saying.  Reflecting back on the day, I believe that the Department was very interested in hearing what we had to say.  I know that policy changes slowly.  I'm not expecting RttT to end tomorrow due to our discussions, but I think this was a positive step forward.  Welcoming teacher input and inviting teachers into the building to have discussions with policy makers was a positive.

I was pleasantly surprised at the feedback I heard from those in the Department. Emily Davis, a Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the Department is amazing.  She spent the day attending sessions, providing input, and taking notes to pass along to others in DOEd. We need teachers like her in higher policy positions.  I know she is looking forward to getting back in a classroom, but voices like hers are needed in rooms where education policy is being decided.

Right before lunch, Ruthanne Buck, a Senior Adviser to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who made a brief appearance in the morning) sat in on a session in which digital leadership was being discussed. She seemed very impressed with the quality of the ideas being discussed and debated.  I had the opportunity to talk with her over lunch about educator-led professional development like edcamps, the need for teacher voice to be heard by those in senior policy positions, and the need for our best teachers to have avenues into those top policy positions.  She was genuinely interested in finding ways to give teachers more influence, which was a pleasant surprise for me.

The discussions at this edcamp were excellent.  Unlike many of the other edcamps I have attended, the sessions were more geared toward bigger issues and action rather than classroom pedagogy and tools.  There's nothing wrong with the latter topics, but this venue called for deeper and larger thinking, and those in attendance definitely recognized that.  The first session I attended, entitled "We're here. Now What?" was a great discussion about taking action to improve education.  Another session on building digital leadership also talked about actions we can take to help develop leaders who will take risks, push back against poor policies, and share success stories.  Both of these sessions made me realize that I have been shirking my responsibility to blog about the good things happening in my small corner of the educational world. In addition to continuing to share the positive stories I encounter at speaking engagements, I committed to doing a better job of documenting those stories here on this blog.

At the end of the day I accomplished another goal of mine for the visit.  As part of the grant I mentioned above, I would like to do some professional development for teachers in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi (more about that in a future post), and work with the Kenyan Education Ministry to put on a STEM summit in which teachers from Kenya have the opportunity to share their best practices with me, and I, as a PAEMST awardee, get to share some of the best practices I've seen in the US in return.  Emily was kind enough to take me upstairs in the Department to the International Affairs Office (I'm not sure if that's the official title) to make a connection who will help me coordinate those activities.

At the end of the day we were asked to commit to blogging about the day and committing to action going forward on the things we discussed.  Here are my committments:
  • I commit to blogging more often about the good I see around me in education
  • I commit to developing the potential leaders around me to be voices for student-centered, learning-focused educational policy through graduate course offerings, professional development opportunities, encouragement, support, and by sharing their success stories with the media.
  • I commit to fostering the connections I have made at the Department of Education, United Nations, National Science Foundation, the corporate world, and non-profit organizations doing social good to promote positive changes in education policy here in the United States, and internationally.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Role of Teachers

I came across this quote by Piaget a few days ago, which pretty accurately sums up my teaching philosophy.  Everyone who has ever taken a child development course knows Piaget.  His studies of how children develop and learn are foundational.  Stumbling upon this quote reminded me once again of how many things we do in schools that contradict what we know about how students learn.

We spend too much time teaching students "stuff" and don't give them nearly enough time to figure out things on their own.  Most schools have a culture driven by content instead of process, despite the fact that we know that learning is all about connecting, doing, and discovery.

If future generations are to prosper, we need to find ways to change schools from places of information gathering to places of learning. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Round Table Discussion with State TOY and Kenyan Teachers

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a round table discussion through Google Hangouts with some amazing State Teachers of the Year from around the United States and teachers at the Cheery Education Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.  I am grateful to Dyane Smokorowski for inviting me to participate.

Below is the video recording of our call.


Friday, March 7, 2014

A Few More PAEMST Pictures

Yesterday pictures were tweeted out by both the National Science foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy of our PAEMST group.

2012 PAEMST Winners at the National Science Foundation
President Obama speaks to 2012 PAEMST Winners in the East Room of the White House
Obviously, all the winners are pictured in the first picture.  I got lucky to fit in the crop in the second picture (I'm in the top left corner).

The second picture was tweeted out with a link to the following article that described our visit to the White House and included several quotes from some of the other winners:  President Obama Welcomes Top Science and Math Teachers to the White House

Thursday, March 6, 2014

PAEMST Recognition Trip - Day 5

The alarm went off at 6 AM this morning, and it was tough to get out of bed.  We had to be on the buses to the Award Ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences at 7AM.  Our guests were also being bussed to the event at 7:15 on separate buses.

My father's ring that he resized and gave to me & I wore for the first time at the Award Ceremony
We made it to NAS after a brief detour.  Apparently, NAS has two different Washington DC locations, and we went to the wrong place.  Everyone filed out of the bus and started to go into the building before being told to get back on board.
The wrong Academy of Sciences building

The National Academy of Science building (on Constitution Avenue, across from the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial) is a beautiful building.  There was a light breakfast available for us, and we mingled for a bit.  This last day had a very "last day of summer camp" kind of feel.  We had all made some great friends, and knew that this would be the last time we would all be together.  Two and a half days was not nearly long enough for any of us.
The right Academy of Sciences building

Before the actual award ceremony we had a practice ceremony.  We lined up in alphabetical order by state and were told where to walk, stand, etc.
Pennsylvania FTW!

It was a bit odd to have such a major ceremony first thing in the morning.  Especially since many of us were concerned about getting back to the hotel in time to make check-out time and not be charged for an extra night.  Some people even checked out and brought their luggage with them to the ceremony so they could take a taxi right to the airport afterward.

The ceremony was nice.  The Undersecretary of Education talked for a bit before the award presentations.  Even though Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had nothing on his public calendar, he didn't consider this important enough to attend.  Unfortunately, the other speaker, acting director of the National Science Foundation Cora Marrett, got stuck in traffic and had to give her remarks after we received our awards. 

My big moment

Lori, Darwin, and I

A few of us with acting Under Secretary of Education Jamienne Studley

Seeing the award for the first time was pretty amazing.  President Barak Obama personally signed each one of them, and our names were written in calligraphy on the awards.

After the ceremony we spent a few minutes taking pictures and saying goodbyes to the other winners.  Those of us taking buses back to the hotel then boarded.

We got back to the hotel in time to quickly pack up and check out on time.  My mother offered to take some of our luggage in her car back home for us so that we did not have to carry it on the plane.  I gave her most of our luggage (which would later come back to haunt me) and the flowers I had bought for Lori at the beginning of the trip thanking her for all of her support that allowed me to achieve this honor.

Lori and I had a nice lunch at the restaurant in the hotel before taking a taxi back to Washington Reagan National Airport.

Our flight home was pretty uneventful.  We had to wait on the tarmac for a while in DC which made our connection in Philadelphia tight, but got back into Scranton on time.  As we walked through the terminal in Scranton I suddenly realized that my car keys were in one of the bags that I had sent home with my mother. 

Lori and I had to wait for an hour in the empty airport for my mother and sister to drive the keys to us.  I showed her the meditation room in the airport while we waited.  It's actually pretty cool. 

AVP Meditation Room
Finally we got home, gave our kids big hugs and the Presidential M&Ms that I had gotten (which they are not allowed to eat), and collapsed into bed.

On the first night of the PAEMST events we were told by the three presidents of the alumni societies that this award would change our lives.  I guess we'll see...

PAEMST Recognition Event - Day 4

If you read my last blog post, you know I didn't get much sleep before these events. My mind was so full of ideas that I didn't fall asleep until 4AM. The alarm went off at 6, and we needed to meet in the lobby to take the buses to the White House at 6:45.
That didn't stop me from having another incredible day. The buses dropped us off at the White House Visitor Center around 7. We spent quite a while outside in the security line. It was in the high 20s, so we got a little chilly. I enjoyed the conversation with a few of the other winners.

The tour of the White House took us in through the lower level, past a few rooms that were roped off (a library and a room full of past china sets) and then up a flight of stairs. At the top of those stairs we found ourselves back in the East Room, where we had met the President just a few hours ago. We were not allowed to take any pictures on this tour.

Three high school girls in front of us heard myself talking with a couple of the other winners about our meeting with President Obama in this room the day before and asked us for details. I told them that I shook the President's hand "right there in the same spot that President Kennedy's coffin rested after his assassination."

They asked us why we had that experience and we were able to explain that we we being honored for being some of the best math and science teachers in the country. Maybe we inspired one of them to become a STEM teacher...

This time, the East Room was roped off so that we had to follow a narrow path. The same was true for the Green Room, Blue Room, and Red Room junta we had free access to the day before. It was only now that the depth of yesterday's experience sank in. Few of us had realized how special the access we had yesterday was.

From the White House we walked about 5 or 6 blocks to meet our guests at National Geographic's headquarters to see an advance screening of their new show, Cosmos. It was explained to us that we were to be the first group of people in the world to see the first episode.

I loved the show. It is based of a show of the same name by Carl Sagan years ago. This version is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of my personal idols. The show debuts on TV on March 9th, and I can't wait to see more. As a gift, National Geographic gave us each a copy of Carl Sagan's book, Cosmos and a really awesome poster showing the history of the universe compressed into a calendar year.  Unfortunately, I had no way to transport that poster around, so I didn't take one.

From National Geographic, we parted with our guests and made our way to buses that took us to the National Science Foundation Headquarters in Arlington, VA. We heard from the acting Director of NSF and then had lunch meetings with different assistant directors. My group of about 10 math winners met with NSF's education staff, and we had an excellent discussion about ways to get more excellent STEM teachers into positions that influence policy decisions, pre-service teacher teacher training in STEM, and the need for better content-specific math and science pedagogical knowledge among current teachers.  It was times like this - when the Assistant Director in charge of the National Science Foundation's education efforts was asking me for advice on how we could improve STEM education in the United States that I realized the magnitude of the award I had won.

Acting Director of NSF, Cora Marrett

Pennsylvania Winners with Director Marrett

NSF Atrium

When out meetings were done for the day, I took the Metro over to the Smithsonian to meet up with Lori, who had toured the Holocaust Museum earlier. We had a snack in the Museum of American History Cafeteria, walked through the Natural History Museum's mammal, ocean, and gem exhibits, and then took a taxi back to the Omni.

Jim Henson exhibit at American History Museum

Marie Antoinette's earrings
For dinner, we met both my sets of parents, who just got into town for tomorrow's awards ceremony, at Founding Farmers. This restaurant was very highly recommended by others who had spent time in DC before, and got good reviews on Yelp. Dinner was excellent. I had the shrimp and grits, and Lori had the chicken and waffles. We split the cornbread appetizer, which was really good, but were too full for dessert afterwards.

After dinner we said goodbye to all of my parents and spent some time with other winners and their wives/guests at the restaurant and a place called Bayou 'celebrating' Fat Tuesday. It'll be another night of short sleep. The buses to the awards ceremony leave for the National Academy of Sciences at 7AM.

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